Stereotypes in science have existed for a long time. Biology is for women, physics is for men. Medicine is for women, engineering is for men. Even as the gender imbalance in science continues, women from the community are writing about it more vociferously than ever and questioning the prejudices that exist.
So when British journalist and science writer Angela Saini wrote Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong (2017), it was with a desire to question the stereotypes that existed and how facts could shed light on the inequality. With research, Saini set out to explain the stereotypes related to how men can’t listen or women can’t read maps. The book, which has not been a comfortable read for the sexist world, questions how humans ended up with a patriarchal society.
“When I was growing up, I never saw any power play at home. There was no division of labour between my parents according to gender. So it was shocking for me to see the biases, which I started noticing, when I was 16. I wondered if there was bias at play and wrote about it. So for my book, I picked out some of the most influential studies. I realised that even when the research wasn’t biased, the interpretation of the research was unfair,” says Saini.
Sue Nelson, an award-winning science journalist and broadcaster, feels that women in science have always been under-represented. “To me, that’s a tremendous waste of brain power and ingenuity; and often, it’s because there have not been as many female role models as there should have been, or they have just not been publicised,” Nelson says.
A point that Saini explains in her book Inferior, which won the Physics World’s Book of the Year for 2017. The book brings to fore case studies of several women scientists and researchers who did exemplary work, but never got their due. Saini takes readers on a journey to uncover science’s failure to understand women and how Charles Darwin thought women were inferior and less intelligent than men and would continue to remain so. “He was a human, just like his predecessors, who was talking based on prejudice rather than facts,” she says.
The book points out that for nearly 300 years the only female presence at the Royal Society of London was a skeleton in the anatomical collection and that Oxford University didn’t even award degrees to women until 1920 even though they were admitted since 1878. “Can you imagine that women scientists had to get published under male pseudonyms? Women scientists were not given the Nobel Prize because they were women,” 37-year-old Saini says. “But I am glad that women are speaking up. That teenagers and women in their 20s don’t take things lying down any more,” she adds.
Women haven’t had the opportunities that men had, believes Nelson. The writer, who comments on science and space for BBC World Service, has had several screenplays made into short films. “I think the book Hidden Figures, which has been made into a film recently, was a case in point because, for the first time, women were hearing that there were American women mathematicians, computer scientists, engineers working during the apartheid era… that there have always been women in space,” Nelson says. Hidden Figures highlights discrimination against women mathematicians in Nasa in 1960s’ America and shows how common it was for women to not get credit for their work.
Nelson, 56, argues that lack of communication about the various streams of engineering also led to gender imbalance in the subject. “Statistics do show within the UK that, for instance, more women study biology in a university than they study physics. Physics and engineering do have far fewer women,” she says. Nelson is also the co-author of How to Clone the Perfect Blonde, which was longlisted for the Royal Society science book prize in 2004.
London-based Saini stresses that feminism and science need not be strangers to each other. “Science should be a friend to feminism. I think we should not use science to dictate how we should live,” she says. She decodes the argument that biologically men and women aren’t equal. “That’s the ultimate argument in my book that there is no reason why equality should not exist. Of course, there are some obvious physical differences and, possibly, some small psychological differences between men and women, but equality is possible,” she says.
Both the writers would want the world to know that the brain has no gender.