The sec­ondary sex

Business Standard - - OPINION -

heart­break­ingly, the pa­per states: “The gen­der of the fac­ulty par­tic­i­pants did not af­fect re­sponses. Fe­male and male fac­ulty were equally likely to ex­hibit bias against the fe­male stu­dent.”

The re­sults were dis­ap­point­ing but scarcely sur­pris­ing. Sex­ism or gen­der bias, call it what you will, is em­bed­ded in STEM (Sci­ence, tech, en­gi­neer­ing and medicine) dis­ci­plines. Fewer women pur­sue higher ed­u­ca­tion in STEM. Fewer women work in re­search. Women get paid less. They win fewer awards. They pub­lish fewer pa­pers. There are great sci­en­tists — Charles Dar­win among them — who ex­plic­itly or im­plic­itly as­sumed that women were sim­ply less ca­pa­ble of do­ing sci­ence.

An­gela Saini, who is an en­gi­neer by train­ing and a prize-win­ning sci­ence writer by vo­ca­tion, set out to look at the gen­der bi­ases and to search for new re­search that ex­am­ined the pos­si­ble dif­fer­ences between male and fe­male brains, bodies and psy­cho­log­i­cal make­ups. She trawled through a very wide range of dis­ci­plines in that quest to tease out pos­si­ble dif­fer­ences. This led to what I’d de­scribe as a fas­ci­nat­ing se­ries of es­says with one con­nect­ing theme.

Even when women in STEM are suc­cess­ful, they of­ten get a raw deal. Marie Curie was de­barred from mem­ber­ship of the French Academy of Sci­ences — her hus­band Pierre Curie, who won half as many No­bel prizes, was not. Emmy Noether con­trib­uted land­mark ideas to physics and math­e­mat­ics but she had to re­search un­der an as­sumed male name. Ros­alind Franklin’s con­tri­bu­tions to crack­ing the DNA struc­ture were over­looked. Jo­ce­lyn Bell dis­cov­ered pul­sars but her (male) Phd guide re­ceived the No­bel. Ada Lovelace and Grace Hop­per were pioneering com­puter sci­en­tists sep­a­rated by a cen­tury. Yet, quite re­cently, a Google em­ployee caused a storm by sug­gest­ing that women were nat­u­rally less ca­pa­ble at com­puter sci­ence.

To add to in­grained be­liefs that women are some­how less sci­ence friendly, there are cul­tural bi­ases that mit­i­gate against women pur­su­ing any higher stud­ies. In­deed, there are cul­tural bi­ases that pre­vent women be­ing born — Ms Saini refers to those when she speaks of skewed gen­der ra­tios in In­dia.

There are also the eter­nal problems of ca­reer breaks caused by moth­er­hood (th­ese af­fect all work­ing women who have chil­dren, of course). Plus there are is­sues re­lat­ing to sex­ual ha­rass­ment, which sadly seem to be just as com­mon in male-dom­i­nated STEM en­vi­ron­ments as in male-dom­i­nated non-STEM en­vi­ron­ments.

Do boys re­ally pre­fer cars? Some girls love cars too. Do girls pre­fer dolls? Boys like dolls too. There are coun­ter­fac­tu­als for al­most ev­ery hy­poth­e­sis that’s been in­ves­ti­gated in depth. Even the “classic” male and fe­male hor­mones are both present in ev­ery in­di­vid­ual.

The pic­ture is con­fused enough to sug­gest that there are few, if any, real dif­fer­ences ex­pli­ca­ble by gen­der alone. For ev­ery­thing that’s been ex­am­ined, from fine mo­tor skills to vo­cab­u­lary skills, colour pref­er­ences and ag­gres­sion, the over­lap between boys’ and girls’ skills and be­hav­iour pat­terns is huge. Dif­fer­ences in in­nate skills, if they ex­ist at all, are hard to sep­a­rate from cul­tural bi­ases. For ex­am­ple, there’s a Filipino tribe where the women are the skilled hunters and the Soviet Union’s women snipers ter­rorised the Ger­man Wehrma­cht dur­ing World War II.

What about peo­ple who are born trans­gen­der? What about those who opt for sex-changes — “gen­der re­as­sign­ment” as it’s called? Do they be­come more (or less) in­tel­li­gent and ca­pa­ble, depend­ing on the di­rec­tion of sex-change?

There are some ap­par­ent ar­eas of dif­fer­ence which are not very wellun­der­stood. For ex­am­ple, women ap­pear to be more sus­cep­ti­ble to cer­tain dis­eases such as auto-im­mune syn­dromes, and also to con­di­tions such as os­teo­poro­sis. But women also tend to live con­sid­er­ably longer in most so­ci­eties even if they fall sick more of­ten (not in In­dia where their lack of longevity is in it­self a red flag). No­body knows why.

This is an en­ter­tain­ing and in­for­ma­tive book, which jumps from dis­ci­pline to dis­ci­pline and ex­am­ines an ex­plo­sively di­vi­sive sub­ject from many an­gles with great care and de­tail. It’s bal­anced in its ap­proach but it makes no claims to “neu­tral­ity”. Why should it? The au­thor, along with mul­ti­tudes of women who worked across STEM, have suf­fered the brunt of gen­der bi­ases for cen­turies. Read it with an open mind and it could help you recog­nise any un­con­scious stereo­types you carry around. How Sci­ence got women wrong ........ and the new re­search that's rewrit­ing the story An­gela Saini HarperCollins ~499, 280 pages

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