Book review: Inferior by Angela Saini

Julia Murphy is HR Officer at the Scottish Funding Council who took part in Aurora in Glasgow in 2015-16.

She gave this reflection of her experience:  “I work in Human Resources and taking part in Aurora has made me more focussed in my equality and diversity work. There were several different parts of the Aurora programme that I found interesting and that have helped me adapt my approach to work and the way I look at myself. Most of the time, just the knowledge that I have been on the Aurora programme acts as a sort of Dumbo’s feather – it’s something I remind myself of when I need a confidence boost.”

Julia gives her perspective on Angela Saini’s latest book: ‘Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong’.

Saini’s achievement as a science writer is to produce work that is accessible and engaging without being simplistic or patronising – particularly since the over simplification of academic study is one of areas being challenged by this book. What begins as a lamentation for the dearth of women in science becomes a wide-ranging deconstruction of our preconceptions about gender.

Each chapter looks at a different topic, with a similar structure. We begin with the background to commonly accepted explanations for the differences between men and women. Saini explores their limitations and describes alternative theories, studies and observations. I was struck by “Women’s Work”, which examines the perception of men as hunters and providers while women stay home with children. We are taught the challenges of using primate studies to understand ancient humans – other primates being less likely than humans to share childcare. We visit societies where women hunt and also consider the vital role of the gatherer to human survival.

After reading Inferior, I will be more sceptical when coming across headlines screaming “Study Proves That….”. We are shown that when it comes to human brains, bodies and society, we are only scratching the surface of what there is to learn. We understand how readily accepted hypotheses often originate in observations of the world around us rather than the laboratory. This should not be seen as undermining the value of research, rather it shines a light on the complexities of the research environment. The intricate examination and repetition that is needed to draw substantive conclusions can be endangered when we put too much pressure on scientists to bring us quick, headline-friendly discoveries.

One could argue that in the modern world of knowledge work and domestic appliances the biological and prehistoric differences between men and women don’t matter. At the same time, there are examples of how “nature” can actually be used to maintain inequality in the face of these advances – women find themselves described as being naturally better suited to types of work that are lower paid, better suited to being primary caregivers.

In this book there is often no conclusion drawn about what is the “right” theory, showing how much is still up for debate and discovery, but it is heartening to see a different perspective and know that stereotypes we come across are not set in stone. Crucially, Saini demonstrates how even the most seemingly objective of disciplines can be compromised when women do not participate equally and contribute equally to them.

In her writing style Saini blends scientific information with anecdotes and examples of gender relations in practice. We learn about people’s personalities as well as about the work they produce – underlining the point that research does not exist in a vacuum. The result is an intelligent, honest and thought-provoking read.


Julia was is one of three Aurora alumnae who have reviewed Angela Saini’s book. You can read the other reviews here:

If you are an Auroran, an Aurora champion or an Aurora role model you can join the Aurora Book Club online now.

Aurora is the Leadership Foundation’s women-only leadership development programme. Aurora was created in 2013 in response to our own research which highlighted women’s under-representation in senior leadership positions and identified actions that could be taken to address this.

Dates, locations and booking for Aurora 2017-18 are available here.

 

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s