The Ghost of Science Past
Inferior by Angela Saini is the latest book to take issue with the science of gender differences. Saini covers similar ground to previous authors (Cordelia Fine’s Testosterone Rex and her earlier Delusions of Gender, for example), but her focus is more direct and practical: why do women underachieve in science? The answer doesn’t seem to lie in education. In core science and mathematics, girls outperform boys until their late teens, and in the United States women earn around half of core science and mathematics degrees. But as those women get older they start to fall away. Only a handful of women have ever won a Nobel Prize for science and just one has won The Fields Medal for mathematics. Among tenured science faculty in the United States, only around 20–30 percent are female.
In 2005, the former president of Harvard Lawrence Summers suggested that the lack of top female scientists might be due to “issues of intrinsic aptitude”—a biological difference between men and women that predisposes men to be higher achievers in scientific fields of study and practice. In July 2017, former Google engineer James Damore echoed Summers’ comments in a memo addressing the lack of female employees in computer science. Damore wrote that “men and women biologically differ in many ways” and went on to explain that women have traits that make them less suitable for computer science and less likely to engage in behaviors necessary for top leadership positions.
Saini notes that most people do not boldly suggest innate sex differences favoring men. Given that both Summers and Damore quickly became “former” employees for voicing their opinions, such a lack of boldness is understandable. Saini suspects, however, that many of us privately wonder if men are innately better at science. “That hushed uncertainty” states Saini, “is what lies at the heart of this book.”
Saini takes the idea that intrinsic sex differences explain gendered work roles seriously. If such differences exist, she argues, then we should be prepared to face that and organize ourselves accordingly. In short, however, she finds that the scientific evidence does not support significant qualitative or quantitative gender differences in ability. Given the right circumstances, men and women can be expected to perform virtually the same in science and anything else. There are no “issues of intrinsic aptitude” that can explain why men outperform women in science. Consequently, Saini suggests that gaps in representation and performance are caused because those right circumstances for women to achieve are missing, meaning that it is discrimination that explains women’s under-achievement.
On the lack of gender differences, Saini is persuasive. Some differences are well established—boys and girls differ in their gender identity, in toy preference and in throwing distance and vertical jumping. But in measures of cognitive ability (such as spatial rotation, verbal fluency, vocabulary and memory) and emotion (such as anxiety, fear, empathy and aggression), the differences between men and women shrink dramatically and are unlikely to be noticed in everyday life.
For example, on average, women score more highly for empathy, but if you take 100 women at random, about 40 of them will score lower for empathy than the average man. Most human interactions, therefore, will be with people who vary in empathy and who vary in a host of other traits. That individual variability will swamp any gender difference; you would have to pay extreme attention to notice your female friends or colleagues behaving with greater empathy than your male friends. Average trait differences between genders do not often translate into anything that anyone would readily notice or care deeply about.
The massive overlap between men and women is also apparent when comparing brains. Average differences in structure and function can be detected, but those averages are again swamped by individual variability. As Saini notes, the proportion of people who have “purely masculine or purely feminine brain features is between none and 8 percent,” so trying to divide your friends into male or female using a brain scanner would likely be futile.
Other differences, however, are more apparent. Saini points out that a woman’s career often starts to falter because of childcare lifting “women out of their jobs at precisely the moment that their male colleagues are putting in more hours and being promoted,” and she adds, “[a] man who’s able to commit more time to the office or laboratory is naturally more likely to do better in his career than a woman who can’t.”
Having children clearly does something, but it is not so obvious that children force women out of the workplace. Another possibility is that women choose to be the primary childcarer because of a preference for that role. A man encouraged by his partner to be the primary breadwinner (or frozen out of childcare because his partner sees him as incompetent) is naturally likely to spend more time in the office or laboratory.
Perhaps sensing the objection to the idea that women might choose their role, Saini devotes a large proportion of the book to undermining the natural basis of individual child rearing. Saini argues that “humans didn’t evolve to raise their children single-handedly,” and she promotes the natural basis of “cooperative breeding” in opposition to private child rearing. Communal nursing and childcare from sisters and grandmothers would have allowed women to hunt and gather. Women’s promiscuity would have supported communal upbringing because promiscuity delivers uncertain paternity, encouraging men to be helpful with all infants in case one is theirs. Thus, contrary to a more standard evolutionary account, women evolved to be promiscuous, strong, communicative and supportive while men evolved to be insecure and jealous.
Perhaps evolution favored strong, promiscuous women, grandmothers who looked after grandchildren, jealous men who guarded their mates, and so on. It is an intriguing account, but there is some futility in trying to find an alternate morality from imagined past mating patterns and evolutionary stories. Whatever the truth in those evolutionary stories, the time of that truth passed long go. Humanity is no longer a mere biology struggling against extinction. We have built and rebuilt the world to suit our needs many times over. Now we are transitional beings that create the conditions of our own existence. The roles we play and the behaviors we engage or forgo are up to us. Essentialisms, however well-intentioned, woman-friendly or enlightened, just do not suit us in an era during which we are freer than ever to pursue our lives on our own terms.
The irony of Saini’s book is that the effort to dismiss scientific notions of essential sex differences leads to an argument that shrinks humanity and our rational capacity for autonomy. If men and women are playing a different role in families and the workplace, it might be because they are choosing certain roles and activities for themselves. Those roles or choices might not be adopted in entirely favorable circumstances but neither are they cast in stone. The Pew Research Center, for example, reports that young women now exceed men in the importance they place on success in a high-paying career, and the sexes equally place successful parenting and marriage ahead of workplace success. In the future, there is every reason to expect women to be successful scientists if they choose that path. Women do not need to rewrite a more favorable ancient past, or overstate an unfavorable present, because men and women can write a more favorable future.
Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong—and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story
(Beacon Press, 2017, 224 pp)