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.

 

 

Bungee jumping my way to leadership

Payal Gaglani-Bhatt reflects on how her experience at Aurora in 2016-17 helped her find her voice.

It was a cold and grey morning in London as I made my way to the Aurora London 1 cohort in October 2016. I was cold but curious, hungry but excited, slightly sceptical but looking forward to meeting new people.

The day began like any other conference begins, but about halfway through the morning, we had to come up with a visual image of how we see ourselves with regards to leadership. For me this was a very powerful, thought provoking and reflective moment. I saw myself as a bungee jumper – tied to a harness, standing on the edge of a cliff, reluctant to take the next step.  This was a momentous image because it was exactly what my approach, attitude and stance was towards leadership. I was holding myself back, uncertain of my own ability, and reluctant to take the plunge!

That’s where Aurora has really made a big difference. It’s made me confident in my own abilities, it’s helped me channel my thoughts on “what’s possible” rather than what’s not, and encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone and bungee jump…literally!

On that very first day, it became apparent that all of us Aurorans were in the same boat: personal insecurities, preferences for a healthy work-life balance and multiple priorities were the backbone of what made us who we are. More often than not, we wear more than one hat in our lives and are inclined to commit extensively to each of our roles – be it as a mother, a mentor, a manager, a volunteer, an author….that’s where I really began thinking more and more about wearing one hat in another context and vice versa.

The reflective practice made me analyse and critically look at the ways I behave, interact, make decisions, influence others around me and most importantly how I was using, or not using, my voice. I knew subconsciously that I often used my skills as a mother with my team and my professional performance management techniques to deal with my kids.

This began the process of vocalising my thoughts and recording the parallels between the two through reflective writing. I found my voice through a blog and after taking on board constructive feedback from colleagues, I had the courage to take the plunge and publish it. In March 2017, I launched School of Mumagement – it is my creative and constructive platform to rationalise what I do as a parent and apply successful parenting tips, techniques, and tactics at work and in management situations to unbelievable success…. naturally this needs tweaking to accommodate varying scenarios, but the theory remains valid.

So, how has finding my voice helped me in my career and what does that have to do with leadership or bungee jumping? Below are three main aspects that “finding my voice” has had an impact on. I believe these are the pillars to being a good leader:

1) Confidence – First is the confidence in my own skills and abilities: in wanting to try new things; in being experimental; in vocalising my beliefs, thoughts and opinions; in standing my ground.  I developed the confidence that my knowledge, skills and expertise were my harness and would always be with me… even as I jumped off.

2) Conviction – Second is the conviction in my passions and energies: in being comfortable in my own skin and personality, in my authenticity and individuality; in my inherent knowledge and self-worth. I found the conviction that I could do it and take the plunge, but more importantly, found the passion and enthusiasm to want to do it.

3) Control – Third is the control over my career trajectory: over my ambitions, my fears and my hesitancies.  I gained control not only on how and when I jumped but also on how I could enjoy the fall, the rise and the bounce and the most important of all, the WHOLE journey.

So my dear Aurorans, I hope you too have found your voice. I hope you have been challenged to step out of your comfort zone, to understand yourself and to reflect on your aspirations. More importantly though, I hope you have found the confidence, conviction and control to bungee jump your way to leadership with authenticity!


Payal Gaglani-Bhatt is Head of Events at SOAS, University of London. She completed the Aurora programme in London in 2017. Since completing the programme, Payal was inspired to create her own independent blog, School of Mumagement.

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.