The secondary sex

How Science got women wrong ........ 
and the new research that's rewriting the story  
Angela Saini 
Rs 499,  280 pages

In 2012, behavioural scientist Corinne Moss-Racusin led a study for Yale. She and her team sent out one resume to over a hundred scientists asking them to evaluate the individual’s suitability for a lab assistant’s post. Half of those otherwise identical resumes had a female name. 

Scientists across the board consistently rated the “women” lower in terms of competence and hire-ability. They were less willing to mentor the “women” and suggested lower starting compensation. Even more heartbreakingly, the paper states: “The gender of the faculty participants did not affect responses. Female and male faculty were equally likely to exhibit bias against the female student.” 

 The results were disappointing but scarcely surprising. Sexism or gender bias, call it what you will, is embedded in STEM (Science, tech, engineering and medicine) disciplines. Fewer women pursue higher education in STEM. Fewer women work in research. Women get paid less. They win fewer awards. They publish fewer papers. There are great scientists — Charles Darwin among them — who explicitly or implicitly assumed that women were simply less capable of doing science. 

Angela Saini, who is an engineer by training and a prize-winning science writer by vocation, set out to look at the gender biases and to search for new research that examined the possible differences between male and female brains, bodies and psychological make-ups. She trawled through a very wide range of disciplines in that quest to tease out possible differences. This led to what I’d describe as a fascinating series of essays with one connecting theme. 

Even when women in STEM are successful, they often get a raw deal. Marie Curie was debarred from membership of the French Academy of Sciences — her husband Pierre Curie, who won half as many Nobel prizes, was not. Emmy Noether contributed landmark ideas to physics and mathematics but she had to research under an assumed male name. Rosalind Franklin’s contributions to cracking the DNA structure were overlooked. Jocelyn Bell discovered pulsars but her (male) Phd guide received the Nobel. Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper were pioneering computer scientists separated by a century. Yet, quite recently, a Google employee caused a storm by suggesting that women were naturally less capable at computer science. 

To add to ingrained beliefs that women are somehow less science friendly, there are cultural biases that mitigate against women pursuing any higher studies. Indeed, there are cultural biases that prevent women being born —Ms Saini refers to those when she speaks of skewed gender ratios in India. 

There are also the eternal problems of career breaks caused by motherhood (these affect all working women who have children, of course). Plus there are issues relating to sexual harassment, which sadly seem to be just as common in male-dominated STEM environments as in male-dominated non-STEM environments.    

Do boys really prefer cars? Some girls love cars too. Do girls prefer dolls? Boys like dolls too. There are counterfactuals for almost every hypothesis that’s been investigated in depth. Even the “classic” male and female hormones are both present in every individual. 

The picture is confused enough to suggest that there are few, if any, real differences explicable by gender alone.  For everything that’s been examined, from fine motor skills to vocabulary skills, colour preferences and aggression, the overlap between boys’ and girls’ skills and behaviour patterns is huge. Differences in innate skills, if they exist at all, are hard to separate from cultural biases. For example, there’s a Filipino tribe where the women are the skilled hunters and the Soviet Union’s women snipers terrorised the German Wehrmacht during World War II. 

 What about people who are born transgender? What about those who opt for sex-changes — “gender reassignment” as it’s called? Do they become more (or less) intelligent and capable, depending on the direction of sex-change?    

 There are some apparent areas of difference which are not very well-understood. For example, women appear to be more susceptible to certain diseases such as  auto-immune syndromes,  and also to conditions such as osteoporosis. But women also tend to live considerably longer in most societies even if they fall sick more often (not in India where their lack of longevity is in itself a red flag). Nobody knows why.  

This is an entertaining and informative book, which jumps from discipline to discipline and examines an explosively divisive subject from many angles with great care and detail. It’s balanced in its approach but it makes no claims to “neutrality”. Why should it? The author, along with multitudes of women who worked across STEM, have suffered the brunt of gender biases for centuries. Read it with an open mind and it could help you recognise any unconscious stereotypes you carry around.

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