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. So the size of that sex difference is two standard deviations. The sex difference in time playing with dolls versus trucks is about the same as the sex difference in height.” 

So if I think of all the women I know and all the men I know - I can think of multiple women right off the bat that are taller than the average man. But it’s still a minority. So that finding surprised me!! But again, let’s keep going…

Which finding surprised you? That the girls preferred the dolls? I am pretty skeptical of all of these studies on babies and little kids. As a critical reviewer of scientific literature and study design expert--two of the most common things I do as a consultant is 1) structured or systematic literature reviews of various research topics for clients and 2) help companies design clinical trials. Granted, I am in the world of biotech and not social sciences. But these studies just don’t seem to make much attempt at all to control for biases. There are no controls, what about looking at something you would expect both to look at for the same time? What about gender neutral toys?  There was no blinding of the study personnel in that baby face/mobile study, this researcher (Jennifer Connellan) was using her own face for goodness sake. How does she know she was giving each baby the exact same expression? And it sounded like she knew which ones were girls/boys in many cases. I mean, Call me not convinced. And the toy study...not convincing. I mean, these kids were probably already influenced by their home environments. They may have already been taught and figured out they are supposed to prefer trucks and dolls. They may just be showing us the early impact of nurturing and gender bias introduced by parents. Maybe that’s the point? I don’t know. I just am not impressed. The only kid studies I like are the ones where they tell them not to eat the marshmallows or oreos til later and then leave the room to see who caves and gobble up the treats. Those studies always crack me up. 

Haha, yes, my kids were in those marshmallow experiments at Stanford when they were little and we always say “Don’t fixate on the marshmallow!!” in our house. :) But anyway… I appreciate your skepticism. This is why it’s great to have a scientist as a reading partner. Keep going with the toy studies, because I think Saini is about to debunk these studies of Baron-Cohen, right?

This difference in toy choices, however, is a far leap from the theory that the brains of men and women are deeply structurally different because of how much testosterone they’ve been exposed to. It’s also a considerable distance from Baron-Cohen’s claim that there's such a thing as a typical male brain and a typical female brain - one that prefers mathematics and another that likes coffee mornings (as an aside: This whole claim is so offensive to me. Can't we do both? Like math and go to a coffee shop with a friend? Why is it all so dichotomous). For him to be right, there would have to be noticeable gaps in lots of other behaviors as well. Those with female brains would have to clearly behave on average like empathizers and those with male brains like systemizers.

According to Hines, this isn’t what we see. Tallying all the scientific data she has seen across all ages, Hines believes that the “sex difference in empathizing and systemizing is about half a standard deviation.’ This would be equivalent to a gap of about an inch between the average heights of men and women. It’s small. ‘That’s typical,’ she adds. ‘Most sex differences are in that range. And for a lot of things, we don’t show any sex differences.” …[she studied an enormous amount of research and found that] only the tiniest gaps, if any, existed between boys’ and girls’ fine motor skills, ability to perform mental rotations, spatial visualization, mathematics ability, verbal fluency, and vocabulary. On all these measures boys and girls performed almost the same. (63-64)

I find this data more compelling because they are looking across studies and looking for patterns and trying to make sense of everything. And it turns out that a lot of what they are seeing doesn’t go along with the huge differences in toy preferences presented earlier. Shows the importance of looking at the whole body of data and not just singling out one study with dramatic results.

In 2005 University of Wisconsin, Madison, psychologist Janet Shibley Hyde proposed a ‘gender’ similarities hypothesis’ to demonstrate just how big this overlap is. In a table more than three pages long, she lists the statistical gaps that have been found between the sexes on all kinds of measures, from vocabulary and anxiety about mathematics to aggression and self-esteem. In every case, except for throwing distance and vertical jumping, females are less than one standard deviation apart from males. On many measures, they are less than a tenth of a standard deviation apart, which is indistinguishable in everyday life. (64)

So my overall takeaway from this section was that you can find scientific studies that “prove” that girl babies are empathizing social butterflies because they want to look at faces and play with dolls, and boy babies are system-building scientists because they want to look at mobiles and play with trucks. But what Saini says, and what you’re saying too, right Chantal? Is that those studies are dubious, and that the real data shows that males and females are waaaay more similar to each other than we think.

And one interesting thing was that I myself was a true-blue face-looker and doll-holder. If you had handed me a truck, I would have rocked it to sleep. I am a very rational, analytical person, but I am first and foremost an empath. But I have also absorbed the misogynistic message that because empathy is associated with femaleness (which it shouldn't be anyway!), it is the inferior trait. I wanted the girls to play with the trucks!!

I enjoyed dolls as well. But my daughter really didn’t. And I think it's just how she was born. I gave her a ton of cute little baby dolls--I did my part to push her into pink and girl stuff. I think she was about 2 when I realized she didn’t like dolls. It was around christmas time and I told the kids that they both needed to bring me 10 toys to give away because we don’t need that many toys and Christmas is coming so if they want new stuff we need to find some toys to give away to the kids who don’t have as much as they do. My little tiny daughter came back with every baby doll in the house and dumped them in front of me. Message received. I never got her another doll. Not completely true, I did get her an American girl doll and accessories because her friends liked to play with them when they came over. So we just got the stuff so she would have it when friends were over. She never played with them when she was solo. But it wasn’t like I was trying to create an enlightened non-stereotypical girl, she just came that way. I will say her brother loved building with lego more than she did, but she definitely built plenty of lego structures. And we didn’t just make her choose from the pink ones. We let her choose the same star wars or harry potter or sponge bob kits he was choosing from. The girl stuff was always pretty lame. 

Ok, that was a long tangent. But I guess in the sense that I don’t think doll playing is necessary to being a woman I don’t think being competitive is an exclusively male trait and I don’t know why it has to be defined as good or bad. In general, I think you need a little bit of fire in your belly to get through life, but maybe that’s my cultural belief in the need to be a little bit competitive to survive. I know as women we are often taught to be nurturing and empathetic and aren’t always encouraged to be competitive. Do we have time for how important it is for girls to compete in sports in high school? Maybe another book will tackle this topic. But I really believe we need to help our girls learn to be a little more competitive and less apologetic. I have already given my teenage daughter the directive to not begin a speech or presentation with an apology. Don’t start a conversation by immediately discrediting yourself and saying you aren’t an expert etc. I know in the mormon culture I was raised in I still see it a lot..when women get up to speak they spend the first sentence or two discrediting themselves. I have often gone up after a presentation and suggested to women that they don’t need to do that. Learn to speak without the apology. I think maybe a little more competitive fire would be good for a lot of women.

Chantal: Chapter 4: The Missing Five Ounces of the Female Brain

A couple of parts that stood out to me:

In 2015 [British chess grandmaster Nigel Short] wrote a provocative article in a chess magazine trying to explain why there are so few female players. “Men and women’s brains are hardwired very differently, so why should they function in the same way?” he asked. He goes on to explain that his wife has higher emotional intelligence, and she needs help maneuvering their car out of the garage. Dr. Gina Rippon summarized his comments in the following way: “He thinks that there aren’t very many women chess players because they can’t play chess. It’s actually that they don’t play chess,” she argued. Female chess players have said that the aggressive, macho, and sexist atmosphere of professional chess can drive them away. (87)

This is an important topic to me, as my husband has been in the chess world for his entire career. We’re doing an episode on women in chess on Season 2, where two top women chess players will talk about their struggles in such a male-dominated field.

Research in the 1970’s and 1980’s revealed that the number of American boys with exceptional mathematical talent outnumbered girls by thirteen to one. Since then, … this ratio has plummeted to as low as four, or even two, to one. ...What looks like a biological difference in one particular place and time can turn out to be a cultural difference after all. 

She points out how London cab-drivers have insane spatial memories because they have to memorize the intricate street maps of London. She quotes Paul Matthews:

“We’re good at what the brain allows us to be good at and, as we become good at something, our brain changes to enable that.” Playing action video games or with construction sets, for instance, improves spatial skills. So if a young boy happens to be given a building set rather than a doll to play with, the stereotype of males having better spatial skills is physically borne out. Society actually ends up producing a biological change. (90)

YES!!! Really important point that I’ve read elsewhere as well: believing that we are not as good at something makes us worse at it. In Melinda Gates’ book The Moment of Lift, I read about a study where two groups of white Stanford students took a math test. One group was told “white people don’t do as well on this test as Asian people do,” and they performed significantly worse than the group that wasn’t told anything (the difference of a letter grade). 

I absolutely believe that how we are taught to think about ourselves is powerful. And I loved Melinda’s book, btw. There were so many examples in that book of giving women just a tiny tiny bit of control over their lives and changing their gendered roles in small ways having profound impacts on their lives and so the lives of everyone around them too. 

My favorite example is the study, and now I can’t remember where, so this could be completely untrue, but I believe it….they had a group of men and a group of women assigned to assemble a chair and they were on a timer. The kit to assemble the chair actually didn’t have the right stuff, so it was impossible to correctly assemble the chair. After about 10 min, the men said, something’s wrong with this kit - we can’t assemble it. And the women struggled and struggled and it never occurred to them they had a bad kit. We are just trained differently. 

Women who are reminded of negative stereotypes about female abilities in math go on to perform worse on math tests. ‘Removing stereotype threat can improve both men’s and women’s academic achievement.” (91)

THis goes back to the whole concept of mindset and believing that we can do things really is powerful. 

Chantal: Chapter 6: Choosy, Not Chaste

Going back to Darwin’s The Descent of Man, this chapter discusses the concept that men indiscriminately chase women because they feel a biological drive to father the most children, and women try to escape unwanted attention because they want to select only the best possible father for her offspring. Males produce millions of sperm - they want to spread the seed everywhere; Females only ovulate a finite number of times, only one per month, and they want to fend off all the unworthy contenders.

But remember: 

It wasn’t just about mating habits but also about how the pressure to attract the opposite sex would have acted more heavily on males, influencing their evolutioanry development by forcing them to become more attractive and smarter. (126)

And this belief has translated into is socially tolerating, even encouraging, men to be sexual, to be philanderers (Higgamous, hoggamous, women are monogamous; Hoggamous, Higgamous, men are polygamous). And men are expected/supposed to be sexually active, while women are supposed to be passive and not sexual. This is the Victorian ideal, and it is perpetuated to this day, especially within conservative religions. 

But is it true that it is human nature (and thus inevitable?) that men are super sexual and women are super not sexual?

Just feels like societal and cultural norms being reinforced. I wonder how much is DNA and how much of these behavioral stereotypes are because they (both men and women) have been raised to think they should behave that way. 

I was raised in a religion that definitely made it sound like you would be sad and ruined if you were a girl/woman who had sex outside of marriage. But I had a lot of single girlfriends not of my same faith who were not what regular people would call promiscuous but they did have sexual relationships when they had longterm relationships. And they seemed happy and fulfilled. They didn’t seem to have a lot of regrets that they had those sexual experiences outside of marriage. I think my eyes were definitely opened and my views broadened that really the ‘way’ we think about sex in relationships really colors/impacts the way we think about ourselves and our experiences. My girlfriends didn’t seem sad or ruined. They seemed pretty well adjusted and happy. And went into marriages knowing how to be in a relationship.

The Himba are an indigenous society of partly nomadic livestock farmers living in Northern Namibia. (In order to understand “human nature,” anthropologists focus on cultures whose way of life has been the least disrupted possible). The cultural norm among the Himba is that it’s as acceptable for women to have affairs as men, and husbands simply have to accept them. They profoundly challenge [the] theory that women aren’t eager for sex or that they don’t want more than one sexual partner at a time. (129)

The Mosuo of China, one of the few societies in the world in which women head households and property is passed down the female line, people practice what is known as “walking marriage.” This allows a woman to have as many sexual partners as she likes. The lover of her choice simply comes to her room at night and leaves the next morning. (131)

These are interesting anecdotes but I wasn’t sure how to connect them to the current arguments. Other than they are case studies/examples of cultures that have different norms and standards so maybe it's not all predestined by our DNA….

Yes, I think that’s what she was intending to show.So when I was reading this chapter and Angela Saini kept referring to this Victorian idea that we all believe that women aren’t sexual, I kept thinking “but I’ve learned that in centuries prior to the Victorian era, women were seen as more sexual than men! Women were the temptresses, the earthy ones, the ones that were slaves to their bodies, and that’s why men thought they needed to put so many rules in place to police women’s sexuality!” And sure enough, that’s where she goes next, 

And this was one of the parts of the book that I found the most interesting. There was a study of a phenomenon among male and female pigeons called “mate guarding.” In the winter, when they’re not mating, they’re coupled up, waiting to mate in the spring. 

The issue for the males is how to make sure they don’t lose their female partners to another male. [Scientist Robert] Trivers imagines himself as one of the male pigeons. “If you have four individuals sitting next to each other, then the males sit on the inside, even though they are the more aggressive sex,” he explains. “I sit in between the other male, who sits to my right, and my female sits to my left. He, meanwhile, has his female to his right. So both of us can relax during the night. We’re in between any other male and our female.” This arrangement means that each male can successfully protect his female from unwanted attention from the other male in their huddle. 

But a dilemma sets in when another couple is added to the mix. …”Now it’s impossible to have a seating arrangement such that each male is between his female and all the other males,” he says. ...This leaves one male in a quandary (because his female is sitting next to another male). What does he do? ...What he does is he pecks his female and forces her to sleep on the slanting roof several inches above him and several inches above the seat she would prefer to be on, which is sitting on the gutter, on which she would have a male on both sides of her.” The male forces her to sit alone uncomfortably in the cold.” 

And Trivers goes on to describe how he watched these pigeons and when that male pigeon would fall asleep, the female would sneak back to the comfortable position, and then the male would wake up, see her sleeping next to another male, and he would peck her aggressively until she went back to sleep alone on the slope of the roof.

I kept thinking of the Taliban, and how they just turned the Afghan “Ministry for Women” into the “Ministry for Virtue and the prevention of Vice.” And I think how religious patriarchs think they’re so righteous and divinely mandated… when really they’re just pigeons. They’re just acting on their basest, most animal instincts. 

This whole concept of women being ‘too sexual’ reminds me of the book Nine Parts of Desire by Geraldine Brooks about muslim women in the Middle East...the book is titled after the famous quote (from Ali) “God created sexual desire in ten parts; then he gave nine parts to women and one to men.” Definitely reminds me of this need to ‘control’ women’s sexuality that is discussed in this chapter. Any excuse to control women...cultural controls or base animal instincts. Either way, shouldn’t we be able to rise above this and seek equality in our relationships? I was actually pretty discouraged after reading Nine Parts of Desire. It's hard to imagine how women in these really oppressive cultures ever get out from under patriarchal domination. 

And that leads to...

Amy: Chapter 7: Why Men Dominate

Angela Saini talks about the practice of Female Genital Mutilation, which most people now refer to as Female Genital Cutting, because when people outside the cultures where it’s practiced use the word “multilation” it sounds so judgmental that it makes those who practice it defensive and not want to engage in conversation. So “cutting” is a more neutral term.

I appreciate this update on the term. When I was in grad school we used the term mutilation. Although that definitely seems like what is going on from our first world position, I see the need to be more culturally sensitive. Its hard to come to the table and make progress when one side feels attacked and then has to defend themselves. 

Three kinds of FGC:

  1. Partial or total removal of the clitoris
  2. Removal of the clitoris, plus removal of the inner labia
  3. Removal of the clitoris, cutting of the inner labia, and then sewing then cutting and sealing the folds on either side of the vagina, like a pair of lips being hacked and sewn shut. This final type, known as “infibulation,” is often the most damaging of the three, leaving women with only a tiny gap through which to pee and pass menstrual fluid. It can be so small that they sometimes hae to be cut open before they can have sex or give birth. 

I wrestled with this issue a lot in my class on International Women’s Health and Human Rights - it is estimated that over 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone this procedure, and in almost every case, it is done by women. The girl’s mother is the one who arranges it. The women in the community make a feast and tell her “she’s becoming a woman.” A woman in the community holds her down while she screams, and a woman in the community is the one who does it. In our class we asked ourselves “how could a woman - especially a mother - do this to another woman?” And “is it a patriarchal practice if it’s perpetrated by women?” 

Saini says that the women’s reason is that if they don’t do it, the community will shun them because they’re impure, and they will be thought of as “sluts.” Whose idea was that?

From our position in our culture, we just can’t understand this and as you pointed at the beginning we have to try to approach it with some sensitivity in order to even start the discussions.I would think once this was done to you by your mother/grandmother/trusted female leaders you would never ever be able to feel as if you had any power at all in your life. To have such violence inflicted on you at a young age by women who love you means that you are a victim of intimate sexual violence your whole life and no way to recover (so much for speaking from a place of neutrality). It feels almost physically painful to even think about it. And honestly, I think a lot of people are still unaware this happens and is so shockingly widespread.

“It’s all instigated by women,” [says a local activist]. “Men have nothing to do with it. But who are they doing it for? That’s the question. ...If men would accept brides who weren’t mutilated, the stigma might go away.” Yet, however damaging it might be to their wives and their marriages, few men stand up against the practice. 

And the reason for this is simple. The torture continues because it does what it was always intended to do. A woman who has been cut as a child will almost certainly remain a virgin when she’s older. It would be too painful for her to be anything else. And once she’s married, a husband can be confident that she’ll be a reliably faithful wife. ...It’s as brutal a manifestation of ...mate guarding as anyone has ever seen.” (141)

Primatologist and anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy believes that all this - the systemic and deliberate repression of female sexuality for millennia - is what really lies behind the myth of the coy, passive female. ...Like the female pigeon uncomfortably pecked back into her place by her mate, women may not be naturally passive and coy at all but just constrained in the ultimate interests of their mates. According to Sarah Hrdy, this explains the mismatch between science’s old assumptions about female sexuality and the broad range of sexual behavior we actually see. (143)

She goes on to describe a few different cultural practices that harm women: foot-binding in China, the Mesopotamian law that Gerda Lerner talked about in The Creation of Patriarchy (she quotes Lerner extensively!) where men could have sex with slaves and concubines, but women could only have sex with their husbands, the Hindu practice of sati, where widows throw themselves on the funeral pyre of their husbands because their lives have no value once their husbands are gone, and ancient Greek women, who were told to always have their eyes downcast in the presence of men becasue they were thought of as having an “animal nature [that] lurked at the core of her being. It was deemed necessary to ‘tame’ her.” ...Aristocratic women, whose families had the most to lose by way of property and wealth, had practically no freedom at all. They were kept indoors, veiled, and in the shadows. 

The shadow cast over women has never gone away. From the Mesopotamians to the ancient Greeks all the way to the present day, societies have restricted and punished women who have dared to breach the moral standard. By Charles Darwin’s time, thousands of years into this regime, ideas of female nature had thoroughly adjusted to the new normal. Humans began to see women through a lens of their own creation. The job was done. Victorians, including Darwin, believed that women really were naturally coy, modest, and passive. 

Female sexuality had been suppressed for so long that scientists didn’t even question whether this modesty and meekness might not be biological at all. (148)

I think this last sentence is key...many scientists and certainly many many people in our society don’t even question whether women are naturally modest/meek/empathetic because of biology.

And last, here is the huge question. Saini writes:

Even if humans once lived egalitarian lives long ago, was male domination of women inevitable? ...Does the biological drive that men have to guard females, combined with the fact that they’re on average; bigger and have greater upper body strength, mean that human societies would have always ended up with men in charge? Is patriarchy hardwired into our biology? (148)

Then she talks about chimpanzees, which is the only close relative of humans that scientists studied for a long, long time, who are patriarchal and murderous. So it was assumed “yep, it’s natural and inevitable.” But as I talked about a few episodes ago, there is now starting to be a lot of research on our equally close relatives, the great apes called the bonobos, who are matriarchal and who keep male aggression in check by banding together as females. So that holds out an alternate path that primates can take. Although to be honest, another important point to make here is that even if patriarchy is in some ways a “natural” occurrence, that doesn’t mean it’s a moral occurrence. You can argue that people enslaving other people is “hardwired” into our biology, but does that mean we say “oh well?” Of course not. 

Amy: Chantal, what is a takeaway from the book?


Well, as you know, I was a little disappointed that she didn’t actually do a disciplined scientific deep dive into what we do and don’t know about biological differences between males and females. BUT, she did bring up a lot of really interesting issues and she got me thinking. So I always give a nod to people who encourage us to think. I mean at this point we can all agree that there ARE some biological differences between men and women. We know there are different sex hormones in general (not in all cases), we know men are on average taller than women (but not all men are taller than all women), so I am willing to concede there may be other biological differences that we don’t understand. Its possible men really are better at spatial relationships and women are more empathetic...BUT, I haven’t seen the scientific evidence to back up any of those differences. More and more I’m convinced that most of the differences between the sexes we talk about are based on cultural norms and pressures. I hope we can stop imposing stereotypes on each other and give future generations the freedom to be their best selves and not have to fit into predefined roles. I hope girls can grow up to be moms and scientists and mathematicians  and CEOS and boys can grow up to be bakers and caretakers and stay at home Dads. The best person for the job.

Amy: Thank you so much!! You’re amazing, etc.


Amy: On our next episode of Breaking Down Patriarchy, we will be reading Women and Power: A Manifesto,  by Dame Mary Beard, a professor of classics at Cambridge University. This is a slim little book, and packed with fascinating stories from the Greek and Roman world that resonate in our patriarchal world today. It’s a very quick, very thought-provoking read, and I immediately passed it around my family and made everyone read it when I was done… and we all loved it. So I highly recommend reading this one - again, we’ll be discussing Women and Power: A Manifesto, by Mary Beard, next time on BDP. 

Compost Pile

This chapter begins with the claim, believed in the 19th Century that because women’s brains are smaller, that women are less intelligent. (Remember Judith Sargent Murray in the 18th Century saying “that would make cows smarter than human men!). It’s so frustrating because one of the scientists promoting this idea was William Alexander Hammond, who was the surgeon general in the US Army and one of the founders of the American Neurological Association. He had such a huge platform and so much power! :(

But even now, there have been studies that show that men’s brains have more “white matter” and women’s brains have more “gray matter,” or that brain scans show men’s brains lighting up in spatial/mathematical functioning, while women’s light up in the verbal centers. Doctors doing these experiments use language like “I’m impressed by the complementarity between the sexes. It almost looks like what is strong in one sex will be weaker in the other and whatever that difference is in the other sex you’ll find a completmentary effect in the other.” (81)

When this research is  published, the results find their way into the public discourse through articles in the Atlantic and many other magazines, proclaiming, “Male and Female Brains Really Are Built Differently,” or “Brains of Men and Women are Poles Apart.” But sometimes the data is not peer reviewed, sometimes it’s misinterpreted (like “women are better multi-taskers - Saini points out that that wasn’t ever proven in the research that was being cited, but somehow the media latched onto that idea) AND… sometimes brain scans are not as foolproof as we think!!! (Grad students at Dartmouth put random objects into a brain scanner to calibrate it, and it detected activity in the middle of a fish’s brain… a dead fish wrapped in plastic from a grocery store.)

When I read this chapter, it just didn’t really satisfy my requirements for careful review of the literature. When I get asked to pursue a scientific question, for example, what is the evidence that men and women have different brains, I would do structured literature review or meta-anlaysis. I would carefully define which types of studies I would include, how far back in the literature I would go (10, 20, 30 years), which regions to include (US studies only? Europe, Asia, everyone?-usually I at least have to only include English language studies), and what studies qualify as ‘good enough’ to include. Case studies usually get thrown out (studies that look at 1-2 interesting cases). Studies with not enough sample size usually get thrown out (for example, maybe I would only include studies with 50 or more study subjects), and then I would look at study design variables such as whether there were controls, what kind of scans are included, were the study personnel blinded. The best studies are randomized controlled double blinded studies. But in this type of question--they aren’t going to be able to do that, but you want to get as close to that as possible and eliminate as much bias as possible. So, this chapter really doesn’t even attempt to do that. This to me is just an interesting couple of studies to talk about. The chapter felt provocative in the same way the Atlantic article was provocative.  It just amplifies how politicized these topics are--with the attention to the idea that men and women’s brains are so different without a really careful look at the literature. The scientist in me wants to go do a literature review but I just haven’t had time. I wonder if there is a meta-analysis or review out there and the author might have looked a little harder to find something that synthesized the data for us.


Ok, so here is my big thought from this chapter. Let’s say we want to understand a trait that we think of as gendered male. Let’s say competitiveness. We draw a line, and label from 0-10, 0 is least competitive to 10 is most. Let’s plot people’s dots on the line - (for ease) let’s use pink dots for biological females and blue for biological males and green for biological intersex. Here are my questions:

  1. Are more pink dots on the left side; more blue on the right? (My guess is yes) Where are the green dots? (My guess is evenly distributed) 

My guess is that whatever you find and plot on your graph is based on not just DNA and brain make-up but also the way we are all raised. So I question the original assumption that men are more competitive and I get more comfort from the data showing that the differences were a lot less than we might have thought (less than 1 SD apart in most cases from the Wisconsin data). The differences in the distributions of the pink, blue, and green dots would not be statistically significant if they were less than 1 SD apart, I think they would be randomly distributed around the line with no real differences in patterns between pink/blue/green.

  1. If there really are more pink dots on the left side, how many more? 
  2. Are there dots of all colors along the whole spectrum? (My guess is yes)
  3. So if there are fewer girls who are extremely competitive, should our scientific description of that phenomenon result in a social prescription that girls can’t  do things that are competitive? And boys must  do things that are competitive? (Of course, not, but that’s how the world has worked)

I don’t buy into men are more competitive. I think men are bigger on average, as she points out, but I’m not convinced they are really more competitive by DNA. How do we pull out societal norms and cultural influences. Maybe there is a competition gene that sits next to the  taller height gene, but I question that assumption. I think most of it is cultural bias. I think we need to normalize the idea that men and women aren’t ‘that’ different and it should be the best person for the job. Full stop. There are some professions that require you to be super strong. Like firefighters. But we all know that there are women who are firefighters, if they are strong enough. I don’t think I could be a firefighter but I’m not the best person for that job. And now women fulfill almost every role in the military (not sure about Navy Seals).  So, even in some of the most male dominated jobs we can think of, we know there are women who have crossed gender lines and succeeded. Likewise, there are plenty of men in traditional women’s fields. I know several men who have been stay-at-home dads and the women were the financial providers. We need to normalize, best person for the job. Sometimes there are physical limitations, but not in most jobs. 

How do we make sure we don’t confine/stereotype people, discouraging the girls who do want to do competitive activities, for example, if there are legitimately fewer of them? How do we encourage all dots to do what is true to them?

I go back to my assertion that I think the dots are pretty evenly distributed so we need to remember that they are much more alike than they are different. We need to encourage each individual to do their best and find their talents and skills and career paths without worrying about gender stereotyping and squishing them into predefined ideals of male/female roles. 

Is competition better just because more men are typically competitive? (In the past, female traits have been denigrated. I had this feeling about the kids looking at the dolls

Let’s say males do exhibit the trait more. Let’s say we do think it’s a useful trait in many contexts. Does this mean that men should be leaders over women? (No! Not if you believe in democracy. All human beings must be represented.)

I’m not willing to concede leadership to a man just because he’s louder and more obnoxious than I am. I go back to my ‘best person for the job’ mantra.

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About the Podcast

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.

About your host

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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.