Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting The Story
Год издания: 2018 год
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Usually, women are present in high numbers at the undergraduate level, but thin out as they move up the ranks. This is explained, at least in part, by the perennial problem of childcare, which lifts women out of their jobs at precisely the moment that their male colleagues are putting in more hours and being promoted. When American researchers Mary Ann Mason, Nicholas Wolfinger and Marc Goulden published a book on this subject in 2013, titled Do Babies Matter?: Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower, they found that married mothers of young children in the US were a third less likely to get tenure-track jobs than married fathers of young children. This isn’t a matter of women being less talented. Unmarried, childless women are 4 per cent more likely to get these jobs than unmarried, childless men.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics in the United States runs an annual Time Use Survey to pick apart how people spend the hours of their day. Women now make up almost half the American labour force, yet in 2014 the Bureau found that women spent about half an hour per day more than men doing household work. On an average day, a fifth of men did housework, compared with nearly half of women. In households with children under the age of six, men spent less than half as much time as women taking physical care of those children. At work, on the other hand, men spent fifty-two minutes a day longer on the job than women did.
These discrepancies partly explain why workplaces look the way they do. A man who’s able to commit more time to the office or laboratory is naturally more likely to do better in his career than a woman who can’t. And when decisions are made over who should take maternity or paternity leave, it’s almost always mothers who take time out.
Small individual choices, multiplied over millions of households, can have an enormous impact on how society looks. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research in the US estimates that in 2015 a woman working full-time earned only seventy-nine cents for every dollar that a man earned. In the United Kingdom the Equal Pay Act was passed in 1970. But today, although it’s falling, according to the Office for National Statistics a gender pay gap of more than 18 per cent still exists. In the scientific and technical activities sector this gap is as big as 24 per cent. Data analysed by Times Higher Education in 2016 showed that women in British universities on full-time academic contracts earned around 11 per cent less than their male counterparts.
Housework and motherhood aren’t the only things affecting gender balance. There’s also outright sexism. A paper published in 2016 in the world’s largest scientific journal, PLOS ONE, looked at how male biology students rated their female counterparts. Cultural anthropologist Dan Grunspan, biologist Sarah Eddy and their colleagues asked hundreds of undergraduates at the University of Washington what they thought about how well others in their class were performing. ‘Results reveal that males are more likely than females to be named by peers as being knowledgeable about the course content,’ they wrote. This didn’t reflect reality. Male grades were overestimated – by men – by 0.57 points on a four-point grade scale. Female students didn’t show the same gender bias.
The year before, PLOS ONE had been forced to apologise after one of its own peer reviewers suggested that two female evolutionary geneticists who had authored a paper should add one or two male co-authors. ‘Perhaps it is not so surprising that on average male doctoral students co-author one more paper than female doctoral students, just as, on average, male doctoral students can probably run a mile a bit faster than female doctoral students,’ wrote the reviewer.
Another problem, the extent of which is only now being laid bare, is sexual harassment. In 2015 virus researcher Michael Katze was banned from entering the laboratory he headed at the University of Washington following a string of serious complaints, which included the sexual harassment of at least two employees. BuzzFeed News (which Katze tried to sue to block the release of documents) ran a lengthy account of the subsequent investigation, revealing that he had hired one employee ‘on the implicit condition that she submit to his sexual demands’.
His case wasn’t an exception. In 2016, the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena suspended a professor of theoretical astrophysics, Christian Ott, for sexually harassing students. The same year, two female students at the University of California, Berkeley, filed a legal complaint against assistant professor Blake Wentworth, who they claimed had sexually harassed them repeatedly, including inappropriate touching. This was not long after a prominent astronomer at the same university, Geoff Marcy, was found guilty of sexually harassing women over many years.
So here, in all the statistics on housework, pregnancy, childcare, gender bias and harassment, we have some explanations for why there are so few women at the top in science and engineering. Rather than falling into Lawrence Summers’ tantalising trap of assuming the world looks this way because it’s the natural order of things, take a step back. The reason for gender imbalance in the sciences is at least partly that women face a web of pressures throughout their lives which men often don’t face.
As bleak as the picture is in some places and some fields, the statistics also reveal exceptions. In certain subjects, women outnumber men both at the university level and in the workplace. There tend to be more women than men studying the life sciences and psychology. And in some regions, women are much better represented in science overall, suggesting that culture is also at play. In Bolivia, women account for 63 per cent of all scientific researchers. In Central Asia they are almost half. In India, where my family originate from (my dad studied engineering there), women make up a third of all students on engineering courses. In Iran, similarly, there are high proportions of female scientists and engineers. If women were truly less capable of doing science than men, we wouldn’t see these variations – proving again that the story is more complicated than it appears.
As with all stories, it helps to go back to the start. Since its very earliest days, science has treated women as the intellectual inferiors of men.
‘For nearly three hundred years, the only permanent female presence at the Royal Society was a skeleton preserved in the society’s anatomical collection,’ writes Londa Schiebinger, professor of the history of science at Stanford University and author of The Mind Has No Sex?: Women in the Origins of Modern Science.
The Royal Society, founded in London in 1660 and one of the oldest scientific institutions in the world, failed to elect a woman to full membership until 1945. It took until the middle of the twentieth century, too, for the prestigious scientific academies of Paris and Berlin to elect their first women members. These European academies were the birthplaces of modern science. Founded in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they were forums for scientists to come together and share ideas. Later, they bestowed honours, including membership. These days they also offer governments advice on science policy. Yet for the vast majority of their history, they excluded women as a matter of course.
Things got worse before they got better. In the early days, when science was a pastime for enthusiastic amateurs, women had some access to it at least, even if only by marrying wealthy scientists and having the chance to work with them in their own laboratories. But by the end of the nineteenth century, science had transformed into something more serious, with its own set of rules and official bodies. Women then found themselves almost completely pushed out, says Miami University historian Kimberly Hamlin: ‘The sexism of science coincided with the professionalisation of science. Women increasingly had less and less access.’
This discrimination didn’t just happen high up in the scientific pecking order. It was unusual for women even to be allowed into universities or granted degrees until the twentieth century. ‘From their beginnings European universities were, in principle, closed to women,’ writes Londa Schiebinger. They were designed to prepare men for careers in theology, law, government and medicine, which women were barred from entering. Doctors argued that the mental strains of higher education might divert energy away from a woman’s reproductive system, harming her fertility.
It was also thought that merely having women around might disrupt the serious intellectual work of men. The celibate male tradition of medieval monasteries continued at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge until the late nineteenth century. Professors weren’t allowed to marry. Cambridge would wait until 1947 to award degrees to women on the same basis as men. Similarly, Harvard Medical School refused to admit women until 1945. The first woman had applied for a place almost a century earlier.
This doesn’t mean that female scientists didn’t exist. They did. Many even succeeded against the odds. But they were often treated as outsiders. The most famous example is Marie Curie, the first person to win two Nobel Prizes, but nevertheless barred from becoming a member of France’s Academy of Sciences in 1911 because she was a woman.
There are others who are less well-known. At the start of the twentieth century American biologist Nettie Maria Stevens played a crucial part in identifying the chromosomes that determine sex, but her scientific contributions have been largely ignored by history. When the German mathematician Emmy Noether was put forward for a faculty position at the University of Göttingen during the First World War, one professor complained, ‘What will our soldiers think when they return to the university and find that they are required to learn at the feet of a woman?’ Noether lectured unofficially for the next four years, under a male colleague’s name and without pay. After her death Albert Einstein described her in the New York Times as ‘the most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began’.
Even by the Second World War, when more universities were opening up to female students and faculty, they continued to be treated as second-class citizens. In 1944 the physicist Lise Meitner failed to win a Nobel Prize despite her vital contribution to the discovery of nuclear fission. Her life story is a lesson in persistence. At the time when she was growing up in Austria, girls weren’t educated beyond the age of fourteen. Meitner was privately tutored so she could pursue her passion for physics. When she finally secured a research position at the University of Berlin, she was given a small basement room and no salary. She wasn’t allowed to climb the stairs to the levels where the male scientists worked.
There are others who, like Meitner, have been denied the recognition they deserve. Rosalind Franklin’s enormous part in decoding the structure of DNA was all but ignored when James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins shared the Nobel Prize after her death in 1962. And as recently as 1974 the Nobel for the discovery of pulsars wasn’t given to astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who actually made the breakthrough, but to her male supervisor.
In the history of science, we have to hunt for the women – not because they weren’t capable of doing research, but because for a large chunk of time they didn’t have the chance. We’re still living with the legacy of an establishment that’s just beginning to recover from centuries of entrenched exclusion and prejudice.
‘I’ve noted that even the best male minds sometimes become obtuse when they start talking about women – that there is something about gender as a topic that dulls otherwise discerning intellects,’ writes Mari Ruti, a professor of critical theory at the University of Toronto, in her 2015 book The Age of Scientific Sexism.
Sex difference is today one of the hottest topics in scientific research. An article in the New York Times in 2013 stated that scientific journals had published thirty thousand articles on sex differences since the turn of the millennium. Be it language, relationships, ways of reasoning, parenting, physical and mental abilities, no stone has gone unturned in the forensic search for gaps between women and men. And the published work seems to reinforce the myth that those gaps are huge.
In this book, I unpick some of these studies and interview the people behind them. Doing so has revealed a body of work that should make every one of us ask questions. Some scientists claim that women are on average worse than men at mathematics, spatial reasoning and anything that requires understanding how systems – such as cars and computers – work, and that this is because women’s brains are structurally different from men’s brains. There are those who insist that men played the dominant part in human evolutionary history because they hunted animals, while women had the apparently less challenging role of staying behind and caring for children. One person argues that humans have evolved to be as smart and creative as we are because of the actions of men. Another, that women experience the menopause because men don’t find older women attractive.
It can be hard to query the motives behind theories like these. Words that would sound deeply objectionable at a dinner party can seem remarkably plausible when they’re falling from the mouth of someone in a lab coat. But we need to be sceptical. The study you read about in the newspaper telling you that men are better at reading maps or parking than women, for example, may be entirely contradicted by another study on a different population, in which women happen to be better map-readers or parkers. The beautiful brain scan is not the photograph of our thoughts that it claims to be. And in some branches of science, such as evolutionary psychology, theories may be little more than thin scraps of unreliable evidence strung into a narrative.
If studies seem sexist, occasionally it’s because they are. It’s impossible to expect the deep prejudice that kept women out of science for centuries not to have affected the very blood and bones of science. In the past, and to this day.
But this isn’t the whole story.
Having more women in science is changing how science is done. Questions are now being asked that were never asked before. Assumptions are being challenged. Old ideas are giving way to new ones. The distorted, often negative picture that was painted of women in the past has been powerfully tested in recent decades by researchers – many of whom are women, but men too – who have found it flawed. And this alternative portrait reveals humans in a completely different light.
Today, away from the barrage of questionable research on sex differences, we have a radically new way of thinking about women’s minds and bodies. Fresh theories on sex difference, for example, suggest that the small gaps that have been found between the brains of women and men are merely statistical products of the fact that we are all unique. Decades of rigorous testing of girls and boys confirm that there are few psychological differences between the sexes, and that what differences can be seen are heavily shaped by culture, not biology. Research into our evolutionary past shows that male domination and patriarchy are not biologically hardwired into human society, as some have claimed, but that we were once an egalitarian species. Even the age-old myth about women being less promiscuous than men is being shown the door. Here too, society plays a greater role in our behaviour than does our biology.
This is well-evidenced, careful work that challenges traditional ideas about what it means to be a woman. The picture isn’t of someone who’s weak or subservient. She’s not less able to excel in science, nor is she any of the softly patronising adjectives that have been used to mark her apart from men as a member of the fairer, gentler sex. This woman is as strong, strategic and smart as anyone else.
It’s a compelling body of scientific research which, rather than pulling women and men further apart in the gender wars, affirms the importance of sexual equality. It draws us closer together.
When I was promoting my first book, Geek Nation, I went to the city of Sheffield to give a talk. At the end, 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 pressed up so close to my face that I was backed into a corner. What was a sexist rant rapidly became racist, too. I tried to argue back. I listed the accomplished female scientists I knew. I hastily marshalled a few statistics about school-age girls being better at mathematics than boys. But in the end I gave up. There was nothing I could say that would make him think of me as his equal.
How many of us haven’t known someone like him? The patronising boss. The chauvinistic boyfriend. The online troll. What I wish I had is a set of scientific arguments in my armoury to show them that they are wrong. To reinforce the fact that equality isn’t just a political ideal, but every woman’s natural, biological right.
For everyone who has faced the same situation I did in Sheffield, the same angry confrontation with a person who tells you that women are inferior to men, and the same desperate attempt not to lose control but to have at hand some hard facts and a history to explain them, this book is for you. In it I travel through the life stages of a woman, from birth through working life, motherhood and menopause, into older age, to interrogate what science really tells us, and the controversies around what remains uncertain.
Despite my personal experiences, I didn’t set out to write this book with an axe to grind. As a journalist, I have a commitment to the real facts. And as someone with an academic background in science and engineering, I wanted to better understand the research. The work I examine spans neuroscience, psychology, medicine, anthropology and evolutionary biology. Starting in the nineteenth century and running all the way to today, I’ve tried to find out why so much of what we think of as true is actually unreliable. I investigate the studies that have hit the headlines, claiming to show that stereotypes about women are backed by science. And at the same time I explore the empowering new portrait of women, which looks so different from the old one.
This doesn’t always make for comfortable reading. The facts are sometimes greyer than people might want them to be. The research doesn’t always tell us what we want it to. But this is an account of the evidence and the debates as they stand now, chronicling the bitter scientific struggle for the heart and soul of women.
For me, this struggle represents the final frontier for feminism. It has the potential to knock down the greatest barrier that still stands between women and full equality – the one in our minds. As anthropologist Kristen Hawkes at the University of Utah put it to me when I interviewed her about her work on the menopause for the final chapter of this book: ‘If you’re really paying attention to biology, how can you not be a feminist? If you’re a serious feminist and want to understand what the underpinnings of these things are, and where they come from, then biology – more science, not less science.’
Woman’s Inferiority to Man (#u0bc67060-a13d-5f77-853b-86359a55f230)
To prove women’s inferiority, antifeminists began to draw not only, as before, on religion, philosophy and theology, but also on science: biology, experimental psychology and so forth.
Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (1949)
The University of Cambridge at the end of summer with the leaves going dry is as beautiful as it must have been when Charles Darwin was an undergraduate here in the early nineteenth century. Up in the quiet and high north-west corner of the university’s library, traces of him still exist. Seated at a leather-topped table in the manuscripts room, I’m holding three letters, all yellowing, the ink faded and the creases brown. Together they tell a story of how women were viewed at one of the most crucial moments of modern scientific history, when the foundations of biology were being mapped out.
The first letter, addressed to Darwin, is written in an impeccably neat script on a small sheet of thick cream paper. It’s dated December 1881 and it’s from a Mrs Caroline Kennard, who lives in Brookline, Massachusetts, a wealthy town outside Boston. Kennard was prominent in her local women’s movement, pushing to raise the status of women (once making a case for police departments to hire female agents). She also had an interest in science. In her note to Darwin, she has one simple request. It is based on a shocking encounter she’d had at a meeting of women in Boston. Someone had taken the position, Kennard writes, that ‘the inferiority of women; past, present and future’ was ‘based upon scientific principles’. The authority that encouraged this person to make such an outrageous statement was no less than one of Darwin’s own books.
By the time Kennard’s letter arrived, Darwin was only a few months away from death. He had long ago published his most important works, On the Origin of Species in 1859, and The Descent of Man, which came out twelve years later. They laid out how present-day humans could have evolved from simpler forms of life by developing characteristics that made it easier to survive and have more children. This was the bedrock of his theories of evolution based on natural and sexual selection, which blasted through Victorian society like dynamite, transforming how people thought about the origins of humankind. His legacy was assured.
In her letter, Kennard naturally assumes that a genius like Darwin couldn’t possibly believe that women are naturally inferior to men. Surely his work had been misinterpreted? ‘If a mistake has been made, the great weight of your opinion and authority should be righted,’ she entreats.
‘The question to which you refer is a very difficult one,’ Darwin replies the following month from his home at Downe in Kent. His letter is written in a scrawling hand so difficult to read that someone has copied the entire thing word for word onto another sheet of paper, kept alongside the original in the Cambridge University archives. But the handwriting isn’t the most objectionable thing about this letter. It’s what Darwin actually writes. If polite Mrs Kennard was expecting the great scientist to reassure her that women aren’t really inferior to men, she was about to be disappointed. ‘I certainly think that women though generally superior to men [in] moral qualities are inferior intellectually,’ he tells her, ‘and there seems to me to be a great difficulty from the laws of inheritance, (if I understand these laws rightly) in their becoming the intellectual equals of man.’
It doesn’t end there. For women to overcome this biological inequality, he adds, they would have to become breadwinners like men. And this wouldn’t be a good idea, because it might damage young children and the happiness of households. Darwin is telling Mrs Kennard that not only are women intellectually inferior to men, but they’re better off not aspiring to a life beyond their homes. It’s a rejection of everything Kennard and the women’s movement at the time were fighting for.
Darwin’s personal correspondence echoes what’s expressed quite plainly in his published work. In The Descent of Man he argues that males gained the advantage over females across thousands of years of evolution because of the pressure they were under in order to win mates. Male peacocks, for instance, evolved bright, fancy plumage to attract sober-looking peahens. Similarly, male lions evolved their glorious manes. In evolutionary terms, he implies, females are able to reproduce no matter how dull their appearance. They have the luxury of sitting back and choosing a mate, while males have to work hard to impress them, and to compete with other males for their attention. For humans, the logic goes, this vigorous competition for women means that men have had to be warriors and thinkers. Over millennia this has honed them into finer physical specimens with sharper minds. Women are literally less evolved than men.
‘The chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes is shewn 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,’ Darwin explains in The Descent of Man. The evidence appeared to be all around him. Leading writers, artists and scientists were almost all men. He assumed that this inequality reflected a biological fact. Thus, his argument goes, ‘man has ultimately become superior to woman’.
This makes for astonishing reading now. Darwin writes that if women have somehow managed to develop some of the same remarkable qualities as men, it may be because they were dragged along on men’s coat-tails by the fact that children in the womb inherit attributes from both parents. Girls, by this process, manage to steal some of the superior qualities of their fathers. ‘It is, indeed, fortunate that the law of the equal transmission of characters to both sexes has commonly prevailed throughout the whole class of mammals; otherwise it is probable that man would have become as superior in mental endowment to woman, as the peacock is in ornamental plumage to the peahen.’ It’s only a stroke of biological luck, he implies, that has stopped women from being even more inferior to men than they are. Trying to catch up is a losing game – nothing less than a fight against nature.
To be fair to Darwin, he was a man of his time. His traditional views on a woman’s place in society don’t run through just his scientific works, but those of many other prominent biologists of the age. His ideas on evolution may have been revolutionary, but his attitudes to women were solidly Victorian.
We can guess how Caroline Kennard must have felt about Darwin’s comments from the long, fiery response she sent back. Her second letter is not nearly as neat as her first. She argues that, far from being housebound, women contribute just as much to society as men do. It was, after all, only in wealthier middle-class circles that women tended not to work. For many Victorians, women’s incomes were vital to keeping families afloat. The difference between men and women wasn’t the amount of work they did, but the kind of work they were allowed to do. In the nineteenth century, women were barred from most professions, as well as from politics and higher education.
As a result, when women worked, it was generally in lower-paid jobs such as domestic labour, laundry, the textile industries and factory work. ‘Which of the partners in a family is the breadwinner,’ Mrs Kennard writes, ‘when the husband works a certain number of hours in the week and brings home a pittance of his earnings … to his wife; who early and late with no end of self sacrifice in scrimping for her loved ones, toils to make each penny.’
She ends on a furious note: ‘Let the “environment” of women be similar to that of men and with his opportunities, before she be fairly judged, intellectually his inferior, please.’
I don’t know what Darwin made of Mrs Kennard’s reply. There’s no more correspondence between them in the library’s archives.
What we do know is that she was right – Darwin’s scientific ideas mirrored society’s beliefs at the time, and they coloured his judgement of what women were capable of doing. His attitude belonged to a train of scientific thinking that stretched back at least as far as the Enlightenment, when the spread of reason and rationalism through Europe changed the way people thought about the human mind and body. ‘Science was privileged as the knower of nature,’ Londa Schiebinger explains to me. Women were portrayed as belonging to the private sphere of the home, and men as belonging to the public sphere. The job of nurturing mothers was to educate new citizens.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, when Darwin was carrying out his research, the image of the weaker, intellectually simpler woman was a widespread assumption. Society expected wives to be virtuous, passive and submissive to their husbands. It was an ideal illustrated in a popular verse of the time, The Angel in the House, by the English poet Coventry Patmore: ‘Man must be pleased; but him to please/is woman’s pleasure.’ Many thought that women were naturally unsuited to careers in the professions. They didn’t need to have public lives. They didn’t need the vote.
When these prejudices met evolutionary biology the result was a particularly toxic mix, which would poison scientific research for decades. Prominent scientists made no secret of the fact that they thought women were the inferior half of humanity, in the same way that Darwin had.
Indeed, it’s hard today to read some of the things that famous Victorian thinkers wrote about women and not be shocked. In an article published in Popular Science Monthly in 1887, the evolutionary biologist George Romanes, a friend of Darwin’s, patronisingly praises women’s ‘noble’ and ‘lovable’ qualities, including ‘beauty, tact, gayety, devotion, wit’. He also insists, as Darwin had, that women can never hope to reach the same intellectual heights as men, however hard they try: ‘From her abiding sense of weakness and consequent dependence, there also arises in woman that deeply-rooted desire to please the opposite sex which, beginning in the terror of a slave, has ended in the devotion of a wife.’
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