PQC: uhmm! reading…reading folks!
For centuries, scientists have influenced decision makers on important issues including abortion rights, granting women the vote, and how schools educate us. They have shaped how we think about our minds and bodies and our relationships with each other. And of course, we trust scientists to give us the objective facts. We believe that what science offers us is a story free from prejudice. It is the story of us, starting from the very dawn of evolution.
Yet when it comes to women, so much of this story is wrong.
I was watching a homemade rocket zoom high into the sky. It was a sunny Saturday afternoon and I must have been about sixteen years old, on the playing field of my school in southeast London. Fresh from the nerdy triumph of having been elected chair of the school’s first science society, I’d organized a day building small model rockets before shooting them into the air. I couldn’t think of anything better. The night before, I desperately calculated whether we even had enough construction materials for the crowds that were sure to come.
I shouldn’t have worried. On the day, I was the only one who turned up. My chemistry teacher Mr. Easterbrook, a kind man, stayed and helped anyway.
If you were the geek growing up, you’ll recognize how lonely it can be. If you were the female geek, you’ll know it’s far lonelier. By the time I reached my final years of school, I was the only girl in my chemistry class of eight students. I was the only girl in my mathematics class of about a dozen. And when I decided to study engineering at university, I found myself the only woman in a class of nine.
Things haven’t changed much since then. Statistics collected by the Women’s Engineering Society in 2016 show that only 9 percent of the engineering workforce in the United Kingdom is female and just over 15 percent of engineering undergraduates are women. Figures from WISE, a campaign in the United Kingdom to promote women in science, engineering, and technology, reveal that in 2015 women made up a little more than 14 percent of their workplaces overall. The picture is similar in the United States: according to the National Science Foundation, although women make up nearly half the scientific workforce, they’re underrepresented in engineering, physics, and mathematics.
Standing on that playing field by myself at age sixteen, I couldn’t figure it out. I belonged to a household of three sisters, all brilliant at math. Girls stood among boys as the highest achievers at my school. According to the Women’s Engineering Society, there’s little gender difference in enrollment and achievement in the core science and math subjects at secondary level in UK schools. In fact, girls are now more likely than boys to get the highest grades in these subjects. In the United States, women have earned around half of all undergraduate science and engineering degrees since as far back as the late 1990s.
Yet, as they grow older, fewer women seem to stick with science. At the top, they’re in an obvious minority. And this is a pattern that runs as far back as anyone can remember. Between 1901 and 2015, 822 men were awarded a Nobel Prize and only forty-eight women. Of these, sixteen women won the Peace Prize and fourteen won the Prize for Literature. The Fields medal, the world’s greatest honor in mathematics, has been won by a woman only once, in 2014 by the Iranian-born mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani.
A couple of years after I graduated from university, in January 2005, the president of Harvard University, economist Lawrence Summers, gave voice to one controversial explanation for this gap. At a private conference he suggested that “the unfortunate truth” behind why there are so few top women scientists at elite universities might in some part have to do with “issues of intrinsic aptitude,” that a biological difference exists between women and men. A few academics defended him but, by and large, Summers was met by public outrage. Within a year he announced his resignation as president.
But there have always been gently whispered doubts.
Summers may have dared to say it, but how many people haven’t thought the same? That there might be an innate, essential difference between the sexes that sets us apart? That the female brain is fundamentally distinct from the male brain, explaining why we see so few women in the top jobs in science? That hushed uncertainty is what lies at the heart of this book. It’s the question mark hanging over us, raising the possibility that women are destined never to achieve parity with men because their bodies and minds simply aren’t capable of it.
Even today, we live in the balance of that question, feeding our babies fantasies in pink and blue with the assumption they are deeply different. We buy trucks for our boys and dolls for our girls, and delight when they love them. These early divisions reflect our belief that there’s a string of biological differences between the sexes, which perhaps shape us for different roles in society. Our relationships are guided by the notion, fed by many decades of scientific research, that men are more promiscuous and women are monogamous. Even our visions of the past are loaded with these myths. When we picture early humans, we imagine powerful men wandering out into the wilderness to hunt for food, while softer, gentler women stay back, tending fires and caring for children. We go so far as to wonder whether men may be the naturally dominant sex because they’re physically bigger and stronger.
Only science has the power to resolve this dark, niggling feeling that never seems to go away no matter how much equality legislation is passed: the feeling that we aren’t the same, that, in fact, our biology might explain the sexual inequality that has existed, and continues to exist, across the world.
This is dangerous territory, for obvious reasons. Feminists in particular have passionately argued against the notion that our biology should determine how we live. Many believe that what science says shouldn’t make a dent in the battle for basic rights. We deserve an equal playing field, they say, and they’re right. But whether or not it sits easily with us, we can’t ignore biology either. If biological differences exist, we can’t help but want to know. More than that, if we want to build a fairer society, we need to be able to understand these gaps and accommodate them.
The problem is that answers in science aren’t everything they seem. When we turn to scientists for resolution, we assume they will be neutral. We think the scientific method can’t be biased or loaded against women. But we’re wrong. The puzzle of why there are so few women in the sciences is crucial to understanding why, not because it tells us something about what women are capable of but because it explains why science has failed to rid us of the gender stereotypes and dangerous myths we’ve been laboring under for centuries.
Women are so grossly underrepresented in modern science because, for most of history, they were treated as intellectual inferiors and deliberately excluded from it. It should come as no surprise, then, that this same scientific establishment has also painted a distorted picture of the female sex. This, in turn again, has skewed how science looks and what it says even now.
When I stood on my own on that playing field as a girl, shooting rockets into the air, I was in love with science. I thought it was a world of clear answers, untainted by subjectivity or prejudice. It was a beacon of rationality free from bias. What I didn’t yet understand was that I found myself alone because it’s not.
If you want to know what science tells us about the female of our species, there’s no better place to begin than by understanding the experiences of women working in science today. UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which keeps global figures on women in science, estimates that in 2013 just a little more than a quarter of all researchers in the world were women. In North America and Western Europe, female researchers were 32 percent of the population. In Ethiopia, the proportion of female researchers was only 13 percent.
The common trend is for women to be around in high numbers at the undergraduate level but to thin out as they move up the ranks. This is best explained by the perennial problem of child care, which lifts women out of their jobs at precisely the moment their male colleagues are putting in more hours and being promoted. When 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 United States were a third less likely to receive tenure-track jobs than married fathers of young children. This isn’t a matter of women being less talented. Unmarried, childless women are 4 percent more likely to get these jobs than unmarried, childless men.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics runs an annual Time Use Survey to pick apart how people spend their hours. Women now make up almost half the labor force, yet in 2014 the bureau found that women spent about half an hour more every day 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 these 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. When decisions are made over who should take maternity or paternity leave, it’s also 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 United States estimates that in 2015 women 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, according to the Office for National Statistics, a gender pay gap of more than 18 percent still exists, although it’s falling. In the scientific and technical activities sector this gap is as big as 24 percent.
Housework and motherhood aren’t the only things affecting gender balance. There’s outright sexism, too. In a study published in 2012, 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.
Interestingly, the authors wrote in their paper, which appeared in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “The gender of the faculty participants did not affect responses, such that female and male faculty were equally likely to exhibit bias against the female student.” Gender bias is so steeped in the culture, their results implied, that women were themselves discriminating against other women.
Another study, 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 apologize after one of its own peer reviewers suggested that two female evolutionary geneticists who had authored a paper should add one or two male coauthors. The paper itself was about gender differences among doctorates. “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 in parts of the sciences, 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 California Institute of Technology suspended a professor of theoretical astrophysics, Christian Ott, for also 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, child care, gender bias, and harassment, we have some explanations for why so few women are at the top in science and engineering. Rather than falling into Lawrence Summers’s tantalizing trap of assuming the world looks this way because it’s the natural order of things, take a step back. Imbalance in the sciences is at least partly because 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 tend to outnumber men both at the university level and in the workplace. There are usually more women than men studying the life sciences and psychology. And in some regions, women are much better represented in science overall, showing that culture is also at play. In Bolivia, women account for 63 percent 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 in engineering courses. Iran, similarly, has high proportions of female scientists and engineers. Mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani, the only woman to have won the prestigious Fields medal, was born in Tehran. If women were less capable of doing science than men, we wouldn’t see these variations, proving again that the story is more complicated than it appears.
And like all stories, it also helps to go back to the start.
Since its very earliest days, science has treated women as the intellectual inferiors of men. You would see it if you were to travel back to when the major academies of science were first created in Europe, according to Londa Schiebinger, a professor of the history of science at Stanford University and author of The Mind Has No Sex? Women in the Origins of Modern Science. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, these academies were founded as forums for scientists, who usually worked independently, to come together and share ideas. Later, they bestowed honors, including membership. These days they also offer governments advice on science policy. Yet these prestigious institutions, so crucial to the growth of modern science, excluded women as a matter of course.
The Royal Society of London, officially founded in 1663 and one of the oldest scientific institutions still around today, failed to elect any women to full membership until 1945. It took until the middle of the twentieth century, too, for the prestigious academies of Paris and Berlin. “For nearly three hundred years, the only permanent female presence at the Royal Society was a skeleton preserved in the society’s anatomical collection,” notes Schiebinger.
Things got worse before they got better. In its early days, when science was a pastime for enthusiastic amateurs, women had at least some access to it—even if this was only by marrying wealthy scientists and having the chance to work with them in their laboratories. By the end of the nineteenth century, science had transformed into something more serious, with its own set of rules and official bodies. By then, women found themselves almost completely pushed out, says Miami University historian Kimberly Hamlin.
“The sexism of science coincided with the professionalization of science. Women increasingly had less and less access,” she explains.
This discrimination didn’t just happen higher up in the scientific pecking order. Even assuming she was given the same schooling as a boy, it was unusual for a girl to be allowed into universities or granted degrees until the twentieth century. “From their beginnings European universities were, in principle, closed to women,” writes 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 thought that merely having women around might disrupt the serious intellectual work of men, she adds. The celibate male tradition of medieval Christian monasteries continued at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge until late into the nineteenth century. Professors weren’t allowed to marry. Cambridge would wait until 1921 to award degrees to women. Similarly, Harvard Medical School refused to admit women until 1945. The first woman 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 and routinely overlooked for honors. The most famous example is Marie Curie, the first person to win two Nobel Prizes, but nevertheless denied from becoming a member of France’s Academy of Sciences in 1911 because she was a woman.
Others 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 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. Albert Einstein described her in the New York Times after her death 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 secondclass citizens. In 1944 the Austrian-born 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. When she was growing up, 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.
Others, 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 after her death in 1962. And as recently as 1974 the Nobel Prize 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 such 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. And much of this published work seems to reinforce the myth that the gaps between women and men are huge.
In this book, I unpack some of these studies and interview the people behind them. 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. Others say this is because women’s brains are structurally different from men’s brains. There are also 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 at home and caring for children. They’ve argued that males are responsible for humans evolving high intelligence and creativity. Still others say that women experience menopause because men don’t find older women attractive.
It can be hard to question their motives. Words that sound deeply objectionable at a dinner party sound remarkably plausible when they’re falling from the mouth of someone in a lab coat. But we need to be skeptical. The study you read about in the newspaper telling you that men are better at reading maps than women, for example, may be entirely contradicted by another study on a different population of people, in which women happen to be better map readers. The beautiful brain scan is not the photograph of our thoughts that it sometimes claims to be. And in some branches of science, such as evolutionary psychology, theories can be little more than thin scraps of unreliable evidence strung into a narrative.
If studies seem sexist, occasionally it’s because they are. But then, it’s impossible not to expect that the very bias that kept women out of science for centuries might have affected the very blood and bones of their work—that it might have prejudiced science’s objectivity.
But there’s more to this story.
Having more women in science is already changing how science is done. Questions are 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 research has painted of women in the past has been powerfully challenged in recent decades by other researchers—many of whom are women. And this alternative portrait shows humans in a completely different light.
Today, hidden among the barrage of questionable research on sex differences, we have a radically new way of thinking about women’s minds, bodies, and their role in evolutionary history. Fresh theories on sex difference, for example, suggest that the small gaps that have been found between the brains of women and men are statistical anomalies caused by 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 the differences seen are heavily shaped by culture, not biology. Research into our evolutionary past shows that sexual division of labor and male domination 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 overturned.
This is well-evidenced, careful work that challenges old ideas about what it really means to be a woman. The picture they paint isn’t of someone who’s weak or subservient. She’s not less able to excel in science, nor is she any of the many other softly patronizing adjectives that have been used to mark her apart from men as the more empathic, gentler, fairer sex. This woman is as strong, strategic, and smart as anyone else.
This compelling body of work, rather than pulling women and men farther 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. 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.
How many of us haven’t known someone like this? The patronizing boss, the chauvinistic boyfriend, the social media troll, the stranger who thinks a woman’s place is in the kitchen? What I wish I had was a set of scientific arguments in my armory to show them that they are wrong. To reinforce that equality isn’t just a political ideal but every woman’s natural, biological right.
For everyone who has faced the same situation, the same angry confrontation with a person who tells you that women are inferior to men, the same desperate attempt to not lose control but have at hand some real facts and a history to explain them, here they are. In this book I travel through the life stages of a woman, from birth through working life to menopause, to interrogate what science really tells us and the controversies around what remains uncertain.
Despite my personal experience, I didn’t set out to write this book with an axe to grind. As a journalist, I have a commitment to the facts. And as someone with an academic background in science and engineering, I wanted to better understand the research. The research 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 us that harmful stereotypes about women are backed by science. And at the same time I explore the beautiful, empowering new portrait of women that looks so different from the old one.
This doesn’t always make for comfortable reading. The facts are often grayer than people might want them to be. This is simply an account of the science and its controversies 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 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 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.”