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The book that tackles the lengthy history of sexism in science

ByJennifer Shelley

Oct 13, 2018

The book Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini has an imposing title. Declaring its intentions from the front cover, the book eloquently presents, explains then dismantles many of the ideologies ingrained in science and society that underpin the perceived differences between the sexes.

Saini speaks with quiet authority without a breath of patronisation, except when reflected in the tone of some of the scientists interviewed. She writes about the (still ongoing) debates over the differences between a ‘male’ and ‘female’ brain, whether the male sex drove human evolution and if there is a difference in the perceived ‘hireability’ of a particular sex. No topic is left untouched, including one harrowing first-person account of female genital mutilation.

It can be a difficult read. In addition to the emotion of some of the interviews, there is the insight that scientific heroes, such as Darwin, were horrendously sexist.

There is the dawning realisation that some scientists genuinely believe that female brains are hard-wired to never be as intelligent as males, that they are evolutionarily inferior. But for each negative claim or theory about women, Saini has an opposing argument to boost women back up. Brilliant scientists (not all female) such as Sarah Blaffer Hrdy and Melvin Konner, who are slowly disproving these theories, become the stars of the story.

It was all of these elements that led physicist Dr Jess Wade (known as “chief troublemaker at Imperial College London”) and chemist and beamline scientist Dr Claire Murray to start a crowdfunding campaign to get a copy of Inferior into every school in the UK and Ireland. They reached their target—the books are already being distributed. But, the critics shout, why is this necessary? Surely these are issues of the past? I have female professors, I know female scientists; is this any more than a history book?

Sadly, a talk given at a CERN conference recently showed precisely why a book like Inferior is so important. CERN is a world leading name in nuclear physics. The conference held in Geneva, Switzerland was for early-career researchers with an emphasis on the UK’s gender equality programmes in physics. Professor Strumia is a long-standing member of the CERN collaboration and told organisers that he would present a historical look at women’s representation in academic publishing. There was no reason to doubt his motives: he has his own permanent office at CERN and is a professor at the University of Pisa. The slides have now been removed from CERN’s website, citing ‘offensive content.’

Despite this, however, the core themes of the talk can be pieced together from photos taken by attendees, news articles and Twitter accounts.

Instead of discussing the history of female academic authors, he used his platform to present ‘statistics’ and ‘facts’ that demonstrated that “physics is not sexist against women” but that “physics was invented by men, it’s not by invitation”. He told
the “terrible” tale of a woman being hired above him, even though he believed himself more qualified. If personal anecdotes are what he considers to be equivalent to ‘statistics’ and ‘facts’ in science, perhaps it is not a surprise that a peer was chosen over him.

In subsequent interviews, he has not backed down. Talking to the BBC, Strumia said “People say that physics is sexist, physics is racist. I made some simple checks, discovered that it wasn’t, that it was becoming sexist against men and said so.”

Despite Strumia claiming that he wanted to highlight that physics was becoming sexist against men, he cited many biologists who have been trying to demonstrate the dominance of the ‘male’ brain over the inferior ‘female’ brain.

He also referenced James Damore, who was fired from Google last year for his comments against women. According to participants at the conference, he even said that the conclusions “may not be fully right… (but) the opposite assumptions of identical brains is ideology.”

He claimed that in general, IQ was higher in men in the human population. He said that this translates into science (despite obvious selective pressures), which makes it obvious that men are better than women at physics.

His conclusion was that if it were not for prejudice against men, they would have more jobs than women in science. This was not a defence of oppressed men.

From first person accounts and references in the pictures of his slides, the bibliography of Strumia’s talk can be collated. It starts to look eerily familiar. Papers from Baron-Cohen, Summers, Hunt. Where else could a list like that be seen? They make up half of the reference list of Inferior.

It was these papers that Angela Saini challenges and dismantles.

It was these papers and the ideology that they promote that Dr Wade and Dr Murray are fighting against when they put a copy of Inferior into every school in the UK and Ireland.

Professor Strumia has now been suspended from CERN with immediate effect but there are plenty of people who loudly agree with his ideas. These prejudices and institutional sexism have a clear impact, with only 20 per cent of US undergraduates and graduates in physics being women. This number shrinks even further when moving up the job ladder – only 11 per cent of the physics professors in the US are women.

Once again, the numbers drop even further when considering women of colour. This is where the confrontation is, and this is why Inferior is depicting our current times, rather than those gone by. The talk in Geneva was an offensive manoeuvre. Let Saini’s Inferior be your defence.

Image credit: congerdesign via Pixabay

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