Having been the lone female in many of her advanced math and science classes before going on to obtain her master’s in engineering from Oxford University, Angela Saini is no stranger to women being underrepresented in science. The topics of women being both under- and misrepresented in the realm of science is the focus of her recent book, Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong—and the New Research That's Rewriting the Story. In this book, Saini tackles several controversial perceived differences between the sexes, ranging from children's toy preferences (e.g., dolls vs. trucks) to traditional notions of male “hunters” and female “gatherers”.
Misconceptions on differences between the sexes have pervaded throughout history--as Saini notes, even Charles Darwin thought women to be intellectually inferior to men. As the science on differences between men and women becomes more inclusive of both female- and male-driven hypotheses, many old wives’ (or should I say old husbands’?) tales on differences from the sexes are being debunked or at a minimum facing increased scrutiny from the scientific community. While Saini herself notes that objectivity in such research is difficult to achieve, she is diligent in providing balanced descriptions of the science on observed differences between female and male behavior and aptitude, delving into whether perceived differences are a result of nature or nurture, or if they indeed exist in the first place.
While the introduction provides a solid background on the historical (and current) underrepresentation of women in science, and the individual chapters provide valuable insight into how “science got women wrong”, the link between these two concepts---that science in many cases may have “got women wrong” precisely because of the underrepresentation of women (and their hypotheses) in science---is something I would have liked to read more about, and required some reading between the lines at times.
Even in the relatively short book, the span of historic eras, disciplines, and cultural practices is vast. Brain imagery, anthropology, modern hunter-gatherer societies, foot binding, female genital mutilation, animal behavior, and differences in levels of promiscuity between sexes are some of the many subjects receiving attention. Whether you’re on the lookout for a battle of the sexes, a good old nature vs. nurture debate, or if you just want to find out what the Chinese hamster, ring-tailed lemur, and pygmy marmoset have in common, you’ll certainly find something of interest in this thought-provoking book.