Episode 60

Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong, and the New Research That's Re-Writing the Story, by Angela Saini

Published on: 9th November, 2021

Amy: Welcome to Breaking Down Patriarchy! I’m Amy McPhie Allebest. Today we will be discussing the book, Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story, written by Angela Saini  and published in 2017. And today I want to start with a quote from the book about the author’s own experience:

“When I was promoting my first book, Geek Nation, I went to the city of Sheffield to give a talk. When I finished, a short, middle-aged man came over to ask some questions in private. 

‘Where are all the women scientists? Where are the women Nobel Prize winners?” he asked, sneering. “Women just aren't as good at science as men are. They've been shown to be less intelligent.’ He walked up so close to my face that I was literally backed into a corner. What was a sexist rant quickly became racist, too. I tried to argue back. I listed the accomplished female scientists I knew. I hastily marshaled a few statistics about school-age girls being better at mathematics. But in the end, I gave up. There was nothing I could say for him to think of me as his equal.” (11)

I’m starting with this quote because one of my best friends has a family member who frequently lectures their family - including the young girls in the family - about the scientific evidence that proves men’s superiority to women. So for myself, for my friend, for all of you listeners who have ever found yourselves caught off-guard and wondering how to respond when you hear about women’s “proven inferiority,”  today’s episode will provide some sound bites to use next time that happens. 

And I’m so excited to welcome Dr. Chantal Dolan to the program. Welcome, Chantal!

Chantal: Hi Amy. Thanks so much for having me today. 

Amy:  (How we know each other, invite for you to share bio)

Chantal: I’d be happy to give a brief background. I am an epidemiologist by training. I used to have to explain what that was, but in this new covid world pretty much everyone at least has heard the term epidemiologist. I grew up mostly in North Carolina (but my parents were both from the West), I am the 4th of 4 daughters with 1 younger brother. I was raised by parents who themselves had relatively traditional roles in the family but raised me to believe that I could pursue a career for myself and that the things that were most important in life were family, faith, and education. Family dinner topics often centered around what books my parents had recently read. My parents were both raised in pretty rural settings out west and were the first in their families to go to college but both of my parents were active learners. My Mom was an English major and teacher but I think wished she could have been a scientist. She was fascinated  by all things scientific. When I was in high school, she took classes in biology and chemistry at the local community college because she realized she was interested in learning more about those topics herself. My mom died relatively young, so those of some of my most treasured memories of my mom--talking about science together.  

I left NC after high school and have been out West ever since. I did my undergraduate work in Human Biology at Stanford. After graduation, I spent 3 years working in the Infectious Disease labs at Stanford medical center. I was working on CMV (cytomegalovirus) but I was working alongside scientists doing the early HIV/AIDS work. It was a pretty interesting time to be sure, but I realized I didn’t actually love laboratory/benchwork and so I decided to pursue epidemiology--the study of the cause and distribution of human diseases. I did a masters in public health at UC Berkeley in epidemiology and biostatistics and then went back to Stanford for my doctoral work  in epidemiology. I always thought I would go into academia and be a professor, but I ended up going into private industry. I worked for Genentech (a major biotech company) for about 6 years and then went out on my own. I have had a small epidemiology consulting company for many years now. I generally work about half time and usually have 4-5 biotech clients and specialize in helping them plan and analyze their clinical trials, especially patient reported outcomes. 

Amy: And what interested you in the project (or in this book specifically)?

Chantal: Well, I would say my decision to go into private industry vs academia and my subsequent decision to leave the in-house corporate world and run my own company were both driven by factors associated with being a woman in science and wanting to raise a family. When I was in grad school, even though I was single I was looking ahead and realizing that if I stayed in the world of academics, I would be fighting for tenure--the hardest time in an academic’s career- during the years I could possibly have children. Also, I didn’t love the idea of fighting for tenure and writing grants my whole life..so for a multitude of reasons, but some specifically related to being a woman trying to balance career and potential family life-I chose to pursue a career in private industry. And ultimately, I took myself off the corporate ladder so that I could have the flexibility to spend time at home with  my children. These choices and topics definitely feel relevant to me in terms of the book we are discussing today. Women pursuing careers in science feels pretty personal. 


Bio of the author:

Angela Saini was born in 1980 in London, England. Her parents are from India. She has a Masters in Engineering from Oxford University, and a second Masters in Science and Security from the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. Between 2012 and 2013 she was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And she has given distinguished and keynote lectures at Yale, Princeton, Oxford, among other notable institutions. She published   Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong in 2017, and it has since been translated into fourteen languages, and her most recent book is called  Superior: The Return of Race Science. It was published in May 2019 to enormous critical acclaim, and became a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize and the Foyles Book of the Year. She is now working on her fourth book, exploring the roots of male domination and patriarchy, which will be published in early 2023, and obviously I can’t wait to read that one.

Amy: Introduction

In a study published in 2021, psychologist Corinne Moss-Racusin and a team of researchers at Yale University explored the possibility of gender bias in recruitment by sending out fake job applications for a vacancy of laboratory manager. Every application was identical except that half were given a female name and half a male name. When they were asked to comment on these potential employees, scientists rated women significantly lower in competence and hireability. They were also less willing to mentor them and offered far lower starting salaries. The only difference , of course, was that these applicants appeared to be female. (5)

This is so important, because I have heard certain men claim that there’s actually no gender inequity, even in STEM - women aren’t in these positions as much because they choose not to be. And it’s true, like you said, that sometimes women do have the option but they opt out for various reasons. But there are still many, many ways that women are disadvantaged because we are still battling unconscious bias - and women have absorbed that unconscious bias too - often times even women don’t want to hire women!!

Oh, Amy, Please don’t interpret my earlier remarks to suggest that all women are just opting out of science and it's a fair environment if they just stay. I have many many female colleagues who have stayed in academia or have stayed in the corporate world. And we definitely do talk about how hard it is to be a woman and always battling for credibility. When I was first interviewing for jobs out of grad school - I had an interview at UCSF (an major academic research center in San Francisco) and during my interview the male researcher told me that I didn’t really need this job because I was a ‘beautiful woman’ and I didn’t need this job, I was going to get married to some rich man and he would take care of me. I was so shocked to my core that this man would say this to me. Also, I had known him in  my graduate studies, so I just assumed he thought I supported women in science. At the time I was actually newly divorced and worried about supporting myself. I just left and never told anyone. I hope that if such things are said today, that there are consequences and that young women who are not in positions of power feel that thye can speak up. 

To go back to your earlier point, I think at the very least, we can assume a lot of qualified women do opt out of STEM careers. And is that really how we want it to be? Do we want women scientists to feel they need to opt out? This reminds me of the recent discussion on your podcast about women trying to have it all and not yet being able to.

I absolutely think there is still an old boys club both in academics and in industry. I saw it especially early on in my career...lots of women in the medium level roles, but mostly men at the top. And when I was working full time in biotech, the men who were hired about the same time I was seemed to just get promoted so quickly. I think they literally had poker nights with execs and men would get invited to those nights. I hope things are changing and they can’t get away with that so much now. 

On a positive note, some men stick up for women. When I was hired by a large biotech company (genentech) right out of grad school, I was interviewing with a man in the department that I would be working in and he told me that whatever salary they offered me was probably too low and that I needed to ask for more. And if they wouldn’t budge on salary, I needed to insist on more signing bonus or more stock. You hear about this a lot now, but this was a little over 20 years ago and I was really nervous, because I just wanted the job and it seemed like a lot of money to a starving grad student. Anyway, I took his advice and did ask for more and they gave me more signing bonus and more stock, and promised me a big raise within 1-2 years. 

So yes, women are still battling biases in the workplace and for sure in STEM. 

Amy: Chapter 1: Woman’s Inferiority to Man

She starts out, appropriately for a science book, with Charles Darwin. I think it’s so interesting that she says that many women’s rights activists in the 19th Century were at first excited about the theory of evolution, because it gave them an alternative to the religious stories about men and women. She quotes historian Kimberly Hamlin, saying “Darwin created a space where women could say that maybe the Garden of Eden didn’t happen… and this was huge. You cannot overestimate how important Adam and Eve were in terms of constraining and shaping people’s ideas about women.”

So then women were devastated when they read Darwin’s views about women in his book The Descent of Man, which Saini sums up in this way: 

In The Descent of Man he [Darwin] argues that males gained the advantage over females across thousands of years of evolution because of the pressure they were under to improve in order to win mates. Male peacocks, for instance, evolved bright, fancy plumage to attract sober-looking peahens. And male lions evolved their glorious manes. In evolutionary terms, he implies, females can happily reproduce no matter how dull they are because they’re the ones that give birth. They have the luxury of sitting back and choosing a mate, while males have to work hard to impress them and compete with other males for their attention. In this vigorous competition for women over millennia, the logic goes, men have had to be warriors and thinkers. And this has honed them into finer physical specimens with sharper minds. Women are literally less evolved than men.  She quotes Darwin: “The chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes is shown by man attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than woman can attain- whether  requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination, or merely the use of the senses and hands. ...[Thus] man has ultimately become superior to woman.” (15)

She tells how multiple women wrote letters to Darwin saying “this isn’t really what you mean, right?” and they have letters in Darwin’s own handwriting saying “sorry, but women are intellectually inferior.”

So this is the first assertion of “How Science Got Women Wrong,” and the rest of the chapters will explain other outdated (but still believed and often-quoted!) ideas.


Add me to the list of women devastated by Darwin’s response. I’m a biologist first so I’m a HUGE Darwin groupie.  A few years ago I was in a pretty big Darwin phase so I read the Voyage of the Beagle which is basically his diaries of his famous journey that included the Galapagos islands and its finches. It was fascinating to read his diaries and almost be able to watch him develop skepticism around everything being created all at once with no changes ever. I remember him describing witnessing fossilized shells high on a cliff in South America somewhere and just this huge lightbulb going off for him about how things change and are not always the same. Also, note that there were no women on that voyage. Just men.  My kneejerk reaction is to defend him and say that it's not surprising that he doesn’t come to the defense of women --he was a product of his times in some ways even if he was way ahead of the game in terms of his ideas about natural selection that would lead to our understanding of evolution today. But, reading this chapter in the book we are talking about today made me realize that his reaction and response to the women of his day who questioned the natural inferiority of women must have been truly like a punch in the gut. It's interesting to think about what would have happened if he had said ‘of course that is not what I meant and there is no scientific evidence to suggest women are inferior to men.’ I wonder if that would have had a meaningful difference in how women’s rights have evolved. Would it have changed the speed or trajectory of the acceptance of women in science? 

And of course, then I think about the impact we have on those around us with our words. In small ways, do the things we say off the cuff have implications in other people’s lives? Have we discouraged or encouraged women or young girls we meet by the way we talk about ourselves or other women? Particularly in terms of math and science. Do we say “Oh I was never good at math” in front of our daughters? What does that do? Even today there is a separation in math and science for boys and girls--often around middle school and certainly in high school. My husband is mostly retired but teaches AP Physics with Calculus at a local high school. It is basically a college level introduction to physics and is the hardest stem type class most high schools offer. There are almost always a lot more boys than girls in this class. This year he has only 6 students and among those 6 students, only 1 girl. I think he may have had no girls last year. I would suggest that is not because there are no good math/science girls..it's just due to the expectations and societal norms we pass on to our boys and girls.

Chantal: Chapter 3: A Difference At Birth

This is the question, right?? Are there really inherent biological differences, present from birth?

Saini describes an experiment performed by Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen (I kept picturing Sascha Baron-Cohen and thinking it was a joke, but no, he’s a scientist at Cambridge University) :) and Jennifer Connellan, in which they observed newborn babies. Each baby was shown two things: one was Jennifer Connellan’s own face (live, in person), and the other was a mechanical mobile that had a picture of Connellan’s face on it. Then they measured how long every baby looked at each one, if they looked at all. This experimental method is called “preferential looking,” and it’s very commonly used in research.

When the results came in, a large proportion of babies showed no preference for the face or the mobile. But around 40 percent of the baby boys preferred to look at the mobile, compared to a quarter who preferred the face. Meanwhile, around 36 percent of the baby girls preferred the face, while only 17 percent preferred the mobile. ...the difference is statistically significant.

…In 2003 he published a book called The Essential Difference. [He says] ...the “female” brain is hardwired for empathy, while the “male” brain is built for analyzing and building systems, like cars and computers. People may show varying degrees of maleness and femaleness in their brains, but as the adjectives helpfully suggest, men on average tend to have “male” brains while women tend to have “female” ones. (52-53)

(I’ll give an aside here that statements like these are based on nothing as far as I can tell. It seems these statements are meant to get attention and to promote his own theory. The data to me are not compelling. But the narrative certainly has staying power and my theory is that the narrative supports the current status quo so people keep perpetuating it, some kind of feedback loop).

I have a lot of questions about this, but I’ll ask them in a minute. 

First, Saini also writes about a case of an intersex person named Michael to demonstrate the limitations of such a hypothesis. And then she talks about a psychology professor at Cambridge University named Melissa Hines who studies sex differences as well. 

On toy preferences, now, she has little doubt left. “One of the first studies I did in this area was bringing children into the playroom with all the toys and just recording how much time they spend playing with each toy,” she describes. “I was really surprised by the results because, at the time, the thought was that toy choices are completely socially determined. And you can see why, because there is so much social pressure for children to play with the gender-appropriate toy.'' She and others found in study after study that boys on average really do prefer to play with trucks and cars, while girls on average prefer dolls. ‘The main toys are vehicles and dolls. Those are the most gendered type of toys,’ she says. (62)

Again, so many questions. My first question is: how big of a difference?

“Toy preferences, I like to compare to height,” she explains. “We know that men are taller than women but not all men are taller than all women....

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Breaking Down Patriarchy
An Essential Texts Book Club
Breaking Down Patriarchy is a podcast for everyone! Learn about the creation of patriarchy and those who have challenged it as you listen to bookclub-style discussions of essential historical texts. Gain life-changing epiphanies and practical takeaways through these smart, relatable conversations.

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Amy Allebest

I grew up in Colorado as the oldest of 5 children, reading, writing, drawing, singing, and practicing the piano and violin. I attended Brigham Young University, where I met Erik Allebest during my first week of freshman year, studied abroad in Israel, lived in Chile for a year and a half as a missionary, and married Erik all before graduating with a degree in English. Erik and I moved around - to Colorado, Southern California, Utah, Spain, and Northern California - while Erik started and ran chess businesses for a living (primarily chess.com) and I stayed home to raise our four children. Those four kids have become brilliant, hilarious people and are our very best friends. I am a long-time trail runner, a recent CrossFitter, a lifelong reader and writer, and an almost-graduate of Stanford University's Master's of Liberal Arts program.