Sexism in science has a long history

Science is sexist in two ways. First, women in science (including engineering, math, medicine) face discrimination, harassment and other forms of maltreatment from men. A recent post in Scientific American, “Confronting Sexual Harassment in Science,” asserts that between 40 and 70 percent of women in science, engineering and medicine have experienced harassment from males.

Second, male scientists portray females as inferior. These two forms of sexism are mutually reinforcing. That is, male scientists use science to justify their sexist attitudes toward and maltreatment of women. Then, when women fail to thrive, the men say, See? Women just aren’t our equals.

In her timely new book Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story, British science journalist Angela Saini documents how science has long denigrated females. In his 1871 book The Descent of Man Charles Darwin wrote: “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.” He added, “Thus man has ultimately become superior to woman.”

Saini notes that evolutionary psychology, a modern instantiation of Darwinian theory, still provides justification for female inequality. In his 2000 book The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature, evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller writes: “Men write more books. Men give more lectures. Men ask more questions after lectures. Men dominate mixed-sex committee discussions.”

These behavioral differences reflect biological differences, Miller argues. Evolution made males more aggressive in their pursuit of status than females. Actually, Saini points out, anthropological research has revealed that hunter-gatherer societies were remarkably egalitarian. Hence modern gender differences are more likely to stem from discrimination and other cultural factors than from females’ alleged biological inferiority.

Last summer Google engineer James Damore nonetheless claimed in a widely circulated memo that females are under-represented at Google and other tech firms because they are on average less ambitious and more prone to “neuroticism” than males and “have a stronger interest in people rather than things.” Damore said these alleged male/female differences are “exactly what we would predict from an evolutionary psychology perspective.” Geoffrey Miller defended Damore’s memo. (See my Stute column “Google Engineer Fired for Sexist Memo Ain’t No Hero.”)

Saini notes in The Guardian that Damore and others back up their views of male/female differences by cherry-picking studies that supposedly prove male intellectual superiority. A broad review of the literature reveals “only the tiniest gaps, if any, between the sexes, including areas such as mathematical ability and verbal fluency.” Just as science has justified racism, Saini notes, by portraying certain races as inferior, so it has justified sexism.

Sexist beliefs, bolstered by shoddy science, result in sexist behavior. Saini cites a 2012 study in which researchers at Yale asked 127 scientists to assess identical job applications. Half of the names on the applications were male, half female. Both male and female scientists rated the “male” resumes higher.

In 1881, Saini recalls, women’s-rights activist Caroline Kennard wrote Darwin seeking clarification of his views on women. Darwin replied that he doubted women could become “the intellectual equals of man.” Kennard responded: “Let the ‘environment’ of women be similar to that of men and with his opportunities, before she be fairly judged, intellectually his inferior please.” Whose views are wiser in this exchange? Almost 140 years later, the environments for women and men remain unequal.

I’m thrilled to announce that Angela Saini is speaking at Stevens on April 4. Please come to her talk and talk about it with your friends, male and female.

John Horgan directs the Center for Science Writings, which is part of the College of Arts and Letters. This column is adapted from one in his Scientific American blog, “Cross-check.”