This is a time, part of me thinks, for men to listen to women rather than pontificating about sexism. But I just talked about sexism in science with my friend Robert Wright on Meaningoflife.tv. And I feel obliged to say something about this issue because I teach at an engineering school where females account for less than 30 percent of the professors and students. Below are points I made or wanted to make during my conversation with Wright. [See also my follow-up post, “Do Women Want to be Oppressed?”]
Is science sexist? Of course it is, in two ways. First, women in science (including engineering, math, medicine) face discrimination, harassment and other forms of maltreatment from men. Second, male scientists portray females as males’ intellectual inferiors. 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 important, 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.”
Francis Galton, Darwin’s cousin and the father of eugenics, was sexist too. Galton, Saini notes, produced “beauty maps” that graded women in Britain “from the ugliest to the most attractive.” At a time when women were seeking the vote, Saini writes, Galton, Darwin and other scientists “hardened sexism into something that couldn’t even be challenged.”
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. Natural selection 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.”
Google fired Damore, but his views are widely shared. Some of my male students have expressed sympathy for Damore and his claims about innate male/female differences. So has David Brooks of The New York Times, a booster of evolutionary psychology. The firing of Damore, according to Brooks, was an example of “ideology obliterating reason.” (See my post “Google Engineer Fired for Sexist Memo Isn’t a 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,” Saini writes. She notes that just as science has justified racism by portraying certain races as inferior, so it has justified sexism.
Here is another way in which I’ve always thought evolutionary psychology subtly denigrates females’ capacity to reason. Darwinians such as David Buss point out that females can only have one child every nine months, whereas men can in principle impregnate a virtually infinite number of women. Hence females, because they have more invested in each child, are less promiscuous than males and more concerned with mates' "resources" than physical appearance. Females' sexual choosiness is supposedly instinctual.
But girls learn an early age that they have far more to lose from sexual encounters than boys, both in terms of pregnancy and social disapproval. Also, in a world in which their economic prospects are less than those of males, it is quite rational for females to be more concerned with material security. So why assume female choosiness is innate?
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. Some women, tragically, have internalized the sexist attitudes of their culture.
But not all. In 1881, Saini recalls, women’s-rights activist Caroline Kennard wrote Darwin seeking clarification of his views on women. Darwin replied that “there seems to me to be a great difficulty from the laws of inheritance, (if I understand these laws rightly) in [women] becoming 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. A recent post in Scientific American, “Confronting Sexual Harassment in Science,” asserts that between 40 to 70 percent of women in science, engineering and medicine have experienced sexual harassment from males. The column states:
As with just about any area of human endeavor where men hold the lion’s share of power, the world of science and technology is plagued by sexual harassment… [T]he phenomenon of professors and researchers hitting on undergrads, grad students, postdocs and colleagues has mostly been hushed up—not only by victims fearing retaliation but also by institutions determined to keep their good name untarnished and their superstars happy.
Another recent Scientific American post, “It's Time for Science and Academia to Address Sexual Misconduct,” urges various actions to protect women, especially women of color. These include supporting a proposed “Bill to Stop Rampant Sexual Abuse, Harassment in STEM Research.”
Please check out Saini's book, Inferior. And then come and hear her give a talk at my school, Stevens Institute of Technology, on April 4, 2018. All of you, especially males who just know that females are inferior, need to hear her message.