OPINION

“There is nothing in our biology that says we can’t have equality if we want it”

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Author Angela Saini tells Rachael Sigee how gender bias in science has hoodwinked our understanding of equality

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By Rachael Sigee on

Angela Saini knows that mentioning feminism in the same breath as science is not always a welcome juxtaposition, but the award-winning science journalist is clear: her latest book is absolutely a work of feminism.

“I am a feminist… and I want it to be part of that canon because I think it’s so vital that women understand what scientists say about them,” she says, “[that we understand] what our true biology is, what is actually going on in our minds and what is actually going on in our bodies.”

It was working on an article about the menopause that lead Saini to consider the relationship between gender bias and science, as she began to see a pattern of male scientists producing research that showed women to be inferior.

“There are a lot of people who bristle still at the idea of bringing feminism into different areas of life… as though it’s some kind of alien force that’s going to damage this pure endeavour that you have,” she explains. “In science, there is this view that there is no place for politics but actually if you think about how gender politics has affected science for hundreds of years – the fact that men have deliberately excluded women. That wasn’t biological; that was for political reasons. They wanted the power.”

For that reason, Saini is unsurprised that the resulting research from a male-dominated sector would then point to women’s inferiority and to gender inequality being inbuilt to human nature. But she wants to show that these theories might not be the objective truths society has long taken them for.

“That’s where some of the mistakes come from. Scientists look at the world around them and think there’s sexual inequality. They don’t think of the myriad social factors and historical factors that created that; they just think there’s something biological here. Maybe we’re naturally unequal. But it’s much more complicated than that. You can’t look at human beings in that way… We don’t wear our culture like a coat; it’s woven into us.”

Her work expanded to become her bestselling and award-winning book Inferior, published last year, covering the science around every aspect of women’s lives from birth to death. Reading it feels like finally arming yourself with the facts and figures you need to win the arguments we have every day about gender, which was exactly Saini’s intention: “Lots of women have told me it’s like ammunition for when you come across that casual sexist who tells you, ‘Well you know, girls do prefer pink’... and you can say ‘No, actually. That’s not true’.”

She explains how biological differences in our bodies have been interpreted as evidence of psychological differences: “Women are not a different species to men. Of course the physical differences are there but for most of our history we have all done the same things. So we can’t assume that just because a woman has a uterus, that her brain is also radically different to a man’s. These are two different parts of our body. And the research does quite clearly show that with psychological differences, the differences are non-existant or minimal. So that just goes to show that evolution-wise, the mental equipment we have been using is similar and we’ve been using it for similar purposes, even if our bodies might have been designed reproductive-wise to do different things.”

It’s so vital that women understand what scientists say about them, what our true biology is, what is actually going on in our minds, what is actually going on in our bodies

When differences are found, she proposes an explanation that science is starting to accept – simply that we are all individually different. “It’s a really difficult concept for us to grasp, I think, because as humans we like to group people together, whether it’s by gender or race or social groups. We just like the idea of social groups where everybody in that group is similar. And what I think is becoming more and more clear as more research is done is it’s very difficult to group men and women in that way. These two buckets just don’t make sense. That’s not to say there aren’t differences but the differences are individual differences. And that is somewhere society needs to get to, too. You could pick any variable you like and you could divide people up and we like to do that.”

But for all Inferior makes you want to turn back the clock to every time a man suggested women are weaker or less intelligent or worse drivers or more emotionally unstable or less capable, and triumphantly maim his argument, the book isn’t a rant.

“I wasn’t writing it just for women,” says Saini. “I was writing to convince those people who hold these really long-standing stereotypes – what to them are really cherished beliefs about sex differences between men and women – and gently convince them.” She’s confident that she can, having sent copies to James Damore, author of the now infamous “Google memo”, and Toby Young, after speaking to them both on Twitter.

Author Angela Saini
 

And she’s also confident that things can change. “Patriarchy has a start date and that means it can have an end date. We don’t have to live like this forever. For most of our history, we didn’t. The point I’m trying to make with this book is that from a feminist perspective, there is nothing in our biology that says we can’t have equality if we want it. We can have society any way we like. We shouldn’t allow these biological, deterministic arguments to stop us. That’s the point I was trying to make – not that we should have equality because science says so, but that there is nothing in science to stop us from having equality.”

@littlewondering

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