Even in the modern world, it’s impossible to escape our biology: men are depicted as the stronger, smarter sex, while women are portrayed as more empathetic, and as natural caregivers. We buy dolls for our girls, and toy trucks for our boys, marking the first in a chain of ways that we raise our children differently. But how balanced is the research that has led us to this understanding of men and women? Ankita Poddar read Angela Saini’s new book Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story and came away satisfied and eager to continue the conversation around gender equality. Excerpts from an email interview:
Inferior has a pink cover with the words ‘woman’ and ‘science’ printed on it. How would you pitch this book to those who call themselves ‘not a feminist’ and those who aren’t interested in science?
However you feel about feminism, I’m sure every woman is still keen to understand herself. In Inferior, I have tried to give women (and men) a solid portrait of what science says about women and how much we can trust the stereotypes that we live with – that women are natural homemakers, that we’re more monogamous, that we think differently from men.
You write about how science has played a role in how women are viewed — often negatively. You use the same field to empirically debunk what has long been considered fact. What kind of research went into the writing of this book?
As a journalist, I had to do an enormous amount of research. Both reading hundreds of papers and books and interviewing firsthand the scientists behind the research. It was a journey of discovery for me, and one that has changed the way I think about myself and all women.
Each chapter of the book starts with a quote borrowed from another author. Who are some your favourite feminist authors to read/what is your favourite piece of feminist literature?
My favourite writer who is a feminist is anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy. Her books, Mothers and Others, and The Woman That Never Evolved are masterpieces. I was honoured not only to interview her but spend a couple of days staying with her on her farm in California. I consider her a genius. I open the book chapters with quotes by prominent feminists whose work I admire, and who have shaped my thinking, including Mary Wollstonecraft and Naomi Wolf.
Along with the issue of there being a certain lack of the number of women in many fields, there is also the question of equal wage. How do you propose women tackle wage while negotiating jobs?
I have experienced barriers moving up the ladder in my own career, so I understand the difficulties women face when they’re negotiating not only their salary but also maternity leave and flexible hours. My biggest lesson has been to know your worth. Don’t accept other people’s definitions of you or what you can do. If you are consistently undervalued, just leave. Leaving a job is the most powerful card you have, so long as you have faith in your ability to start again.
In the chapter, ‘A Difference at Birth’, while discussing chromosomes in deciding the sex of the unborn child, you hint at patriarchy: men are just as responsible for bringing daughters into the world as women are. As parents, we tend to assign gender to our children as well, with blue vs pink and cars vs dolls. As the new generation gears towards accepting gender fluidity, how would you, as a parent, phase out strict gender rules?
I have a young son and I know how much of a battle it is to make sure that he doesn’t get exposed to gender stereotypes. In some ways, it’s inevitable that he will. But if we want to raise a fairer generation, then we need to make sure our boys [also] play with dolls and our girls [also] play with trucks. We can’t treat them as anything but the same.
While you argue and show evidence that ‘the brains of women and men aren’t so different…’, there is a marked difference in the emotional intelligence of women and men. Women tend to, generally, be more open with and accepting of their feelings, relative to men. Do you find this over-expression of and/or inability to be in touch with emotion a result of conditioning or the makeup of women and men?
The big differences we see in behaviour are most likely to do with social conditioning. Men are perfectly capable of being emotional and sensitive.
There are certain fields that are somewhat female-dominated, but that very fact is deeply rooted in patriarchy—the fashion and beauty industry, publishing, and soft journalism—fields that are considered somewhat frivolous by the educated and cultured. How do you feel about women having to justify their career choices in the twenty-first century?
When we make career choices, we tend to gravitate towards those jobs that society deems both socially acceptable and which we think are most likely to reward us. This is how certain fields become female-dominated over time. Feminising all workplaces—including fields like engineering, banking and science—will take time, because it requires a massive shift in how we feel about certain jobs and also structural change in working patterns, parental leave and flexibility. But let’s not forget that millions of women around the world—most, in fact—work in farming. This is heavy, backbreaking work, but they do it because they have to.
Along with the question of working women, there is the simultaneous question of ‘housewives’, women who work day in and day out to ensure the smooth functioning of homes, who aren’t included in the work force, for they aren’t directly contributing to the economy. You cover this topic in the fifth chapter of Inferior, ‘Women’s Work’. How would you respond to the criticism faced by women who choose to stay home in favour of leaving the corporate world?
Every woman, of course, has to make the best choice for her, without fear of judgement. But I also hope that we try to make the choices we would want our daughters to make.
Inferior’s introduction details a number of women who have failed to get the recognition they deserved for their contributions to the world of science, although this is not a phenomenon limited to this field. Have you ever found yourself justifying your success to male counterparts?
When my first book, Geek Nation, was published in 2011 some sections of the press made a big deal of the fact that I was a young woman—and not just that, but a young woman writing about science, with an engineering degree—as though this was strange. Today, we see so many successful female authors, scientists and engineers, that same incredulity isn’t there.
Whenever a woman is in a position of power, she’s often branded as cold, cutthroat, and ruthless. Case in point, Anna Wintour—her editing is the stuff of legend, as is her persona (Devil Wears Prada owes its success to her success and people’s jealousy). Men in similar positions with worse reputations seem to never get that kind of criticism. Have you ever received criticism for making the same decisions that anyone else in the job would make?
No, I can’t say that I have. I guess society is still coming to terms with women in power. We hold powerful women to different standards, picking apart every aspect of their personalities. If a woman wants to be cold, so be it. If she wants to be warm, fine. We are all different.
There are a number of statistics that show that women who wear makeup, lipstick in particular, tend to earn more money that women who don’t. How do you feel about this internal division that women seem to face?
It’s a sad fact that image matters. That’s why so many men still wear ties even though, as far as I can tell, they serve no purpose if you have buttons on your shirt. I would love to see the day when a person can turn up to work in whatever they want to wear and be judged solely on their performance.
The world, with the notable exception of France, is voting right and conservative. How do you think this will affect feminist, LGBTQ+ and other equality-centred movements?
What we are seeing in right-wing movements around the world is a backlash to the push for greater equality. Many people are scared that their power and privilege will be taken away by women and minorities. We need to build an inclusive future that reminds people that we all have everything to gain from a fairer, more free world.
The internet has also given rise to many movements such as ‘free the nipple’, a campaign to remove the stigma surrounding the female nipple, desensitising the masses to breastfeeding, and asking for “the first day of period leave” to name a few. Websites such as Buzzfeed constantly promote feminism and social equality in every endeavour. How do you think the internet and its accessibility will change the course of the feminist movement, both in terms of reaching people and also attracting immediate criticism?
Social media is brilliant in some ways, in highlighting hidden injustice and giving people a voice. But then it has also given a platform to the ugliest, darkest parts of society. I’ve been trolled myself on Twitter since my book came out. I think steps need to be taken to limit harassment online. But I also think feminism has benefited from social media, by giving so many women an outlet they never had before.
And finally, what, apart from being a woman, makes feminism so important to you and close to your heart?
Feminism is for everyone. I want equality not just for me, but for my husband and my son. I want my boy to grow up in a world in which he is not limited by stereotypes, in which he can grow up to be a hands-on father, and in which he can do any job he chooses without fear. Growing up in Britain, I have known prejudice on two fronts: as a woman and as an ethnic minority. I want a world free of prejudice, for everyone. If we can manage that, we can proud of ourselves. But it’s a hard road.
(Inferior by Angela Saini is now available in bookstores.)