What science has gotten wrong by ignoring women

Sexism has long skewed research, but a new wave of scientists is shifting course.

Angela Saini knows what it’s like to be the only woman in the room, especially when that room is a science lab. In college, she was the only female in her engineering class. Before that, she’d been the only girl in her math class and her chemistry class. She went on to get two masters degrees, one in engineering and the other in science and security. Now an award-winning journalist, Saini is shining a light on the history of science, a field which, for all its good, has done a disservice to women—and to research—by largely dismissing them.

Speaking from London, where she lives, Saini talked about her 2017 book, Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research that’s Rewriting the Story and why there currently is a campaign to get it into every New York City school. She peeled back the layers of sexism within science and explained why biology and sexual repression have continued to keep women on the sidelines, and how a new wave of feminists and feminist thinking is shifting the discourse. Her next book, Superior: The Insidious Return of Race Science, will be out in the summer.

Female scientists are very much a minority group. Walk us through how this underrepresentation can affect—or skew—research and the conclusions that are ultimately reached.

For a lot of the history of modern science women were deliberately excluded. If you have any group that is underrepresented, then the people who are studying them may fall back on their own cultural or social assumptions. And if you have a field in which men dominate, which for most of the history of modern science men have, then of course their assumptions about women are going to be loading the kind of research that they do and the theories they come up with. And that is exactly what happens.

That surprises some people because there is this belief that science is perfectly objective, since scientists are taught to guard against their biases. But the gender or the race of the researchers can matter.

Charles Darwin, for all his positive contributions to science, had a pretty dismal take on women's place in it. What were his views, and what were they based upon?

The title of my book comes from a direct quote from him. In a letter he described women as the intellectual inferiors of men. He looked around at Victorian society and saw that women weren’t achieving as much as men, so his conclusion was that women just don’t have the same capacities and capabilities as men. That they had somehow under evolved.

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What’s strange about Darwin—and I still think of him as such a scientific hero—is that he was so thorough and careful in his work, but on this issue, he seemed quite slapdash. He didn’t examine the reasons that women had fewer achievements. He didn’t think that it might be because women weren’t allowed to do anything, at least in Victorian England. Unless people have an even playing field it’s not fair to compare them, and that’s what he was doing. If he lived today, I don’t think he would have made those mistakes because he was too careful a scientist. I think he just fell into a trap that a lot of people fell into—a trap of his time, and of accepting these cultural ideas about men and women and not challenging them.

Speaking of Darwin, let's talk about Eliza Burt Gamble, the tough-as-nails schoolteacher and women's rights activist who took him on. Who was she, and how did she challenge his theories?

She does sound like an incredible woman. She was very self-sufficient and independent. Like many women in the 19th century, she didn’t have the broadest education so she educated herself. She really tried to look at evolutionary theory and examine the evidence from a different point of view. And she came up with a very different conclusion: that women were naturally superior. I’m not saying she was right, but what she proved was that you can look at evidence in very different ways. And depending on your prejudices, depending on your point of view, you can come up with a different conclusion.

History is full of unsung female groundbreakers. Introduce us to a few of your favorites from the science archives.

There was a wonderful woman named Helen Hamilton Gardner, who investigated brains. This was in the early days of neurology and brain anatomy, when the assumption was that women had smaller brains, and so they were more stupid. Gardner observed that if brain size were an indicator of intelligence then humans would not be the smartest species, because we don’t have the biggest brain. It’s relative to body size and so since women are slightly smaller than men it makes sense that their brains would be slightly smaller.

She faced a lot of harsh resistance to her ideas, partly because male biologists were so invested in the idea that there must be some biological basis to female inferiority. And she was making a clear point that actually maybe there isn’t, which is the basis for a lot of work that’s been done since then. It’s very easy to jump to biological conclusions I think, but it’s quite lazy as well.

Your book delves into some dark territory, such as female genital mutilation (FGM) and foot-binding. What role do these, and other forms of suppression, play in the story of women in science?

There’s a widespread idea that women are somehow naturally chaste and modest and monogamous and men are naturally promiscuous. A woman named Sarah Blaffer Hrdy questioned this, asking what biological evidence exists to support it. Her point was that if women are naturally chaste and modest, then why do we do things like FGM, which is such a brutal, incredibly violent act? It’s done on millions of women to stop them from having sex. There is no other purpose to it. Why do we need to do that if they’re naturally chaste? No one had made this observation before Hrdy came along.

We have subtler forms of sexual repression too. I would argue that male guardianship is an example—this idea that you have to stay closeted away, and can’t do anything without the man in your life’s permission. Until recently women in Saudi Arabia couldn’t drive. That kind of control of a woman’s freedom is really at its heart a control of her sexual behavior, to make sure that she doesn’t transgress.

On a brighter note, feminism also has a role in science. How has it made the field better?

I think a lot of people are nervous about bringing politics into science because science is seen to be separate from politics, but I would argue that when we’re studying human biology and behavior the politics have always been there. For example, in the early 20th century a leading reproductive biologist, Walter Heape, wrote that women were wasting their reproductive energy when they went out to fight for the vote. That goes to show that right from the beginning this was inherently political.

I think what feminists have done within science is challenge these old male orthodoxies and ask, ‘Do we need to ask these questions again?’ Do questions take on a different bent when you look at history and culture as a way of explaining things rather than biology? And this has really helped. It’s improved the research that’s been done and improved the theories that we now have about sex difference.

Thanks to physicist Jess Wade of Imperial College London, your book is now in all public schools in the UK, and New York City schools are next. Talk about her efforts, and what they mean to you.

It’s a sign of how well loved she is and how much people support her efforts. I think it says more about her than it does about the book because she’s just such a force of nature. I’m so intensely grateful to her; I can’t put into words how wonderful she is. And it’s not just me, she’s so supportive of many women in science, and minorities in science in general.

At the moment she has raised $4,000 to get the book into all public schools in New York City. The aim is $10,000. Another group of women have launched a similar crowdfunding campaign in Canada.

You and I both have young sons. What do you hope the scientific playing field will look like by the time they're old enough to read Inferior?

My publishers in the UK are making a special school version of the book, and there’s an intro from Jess and from me. I explain that one day I would love it if my son [who is five] would find the book in his school library when he’s older and read it.

I hope the world is different by then, I hope these aren’t issues anymore. But at the moment the world is in such turmoil I really don’t know. I hope we don’t go backward on this, that we manage to defend our rights and move things forward.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.