We first met at a science conference on Google’s campus the day James Damore’s company-wide manifesto went viral. The so-called Google memo delivered a litany of sexist tropes to justify excluding women from the tech workforce, misappropriating scientific studies to reinforce its author’s bias. It wasn’t original research, it contained no references, but continued a tradition of cherry picking from a body of “science” deployed to justify keeping women out of technical positions.
As women in science ourselves, we’d been subjected to those very same lines, rolling off the tongues of university presidents, prominent professors and men’s rights activists alike. For too long they’ve gone unchallenged because men have dominated scientific and technical institutions, systematically providing little opportunity for women and underrepresented groups to correct the narrative they’ve put forth. But this narrative isn’t just biased; it’s bad science.
The same summer, Angela Saini’s Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong—and the New Research That's Rewriting the Story hit the shelves, sparking conversations at that very same conference. It is a powerful, impartial and thoroughly researched look at the origins of Damore’s—and troves of other engineers’ and scientists’—misconceptions. Inferior examines both the science and the scientists, delving into how easily bias and motivated reasoning creep into experiments, analysis, and the way we see the world.
How could we begin to compare men and women’s contributions to our understanding of the world? Women weren’t allowed to graduate from universities until the mid-1800s, two centuries after the first men. Once women were allowed in to colleges, they excelled, and by 1982 they were earning more bachelor's degrees than men. But in subjects like physics and math, the stereotypes that have limited women’s academic progress for centurieshaven’t been so easy to shake off. Despite performing equally well at junior and middle school, women are less likely to choose AP Physics and they make up only a quarter of physics majors.
Lack of talent or interest is not stopping young women from choosing these subjects: it’s decades of sexism—ranging from the subtlety of implicit bias to the more blatant manifestos. We have no idea what scientific discoveries we are missing out on and what questions we’re failing to ask by having such a homogeneous scientific workforce—one that fails to adequately reflect the plurality of perspectives that exist around the world.
But the beauty of science is that it’s self-correcting. Saini’s reporting in Inferior dissects the flimsy “science” cited by Damore and his allies and sets the cultural foundation on which these “discoveries” were made. At its core, Inferior articulates that science is an enterprise undertaken by humans—and with their humanity, scientists bring a set of biases into the work they do.
Those biases have calcified the idea that the inequities that surround us are rooted in our biology rather than our society. The book also offers new research correcting the record, while advocating that science should never be used to limit our ambitions or what we can expect from the world.
Inferior set the stage for our friendship. Jess had just finished reading it and was sharing copies with women and allies at the meeting, adding fuel to our discussions of the Damore memo that weekend. As women in science, we had the requisite stories of social media fights where the language of science was used to silence our legitimate grievances. Inferior helped us articulate why that “science” was bunk—and why science should never be used to justify injustice. And we reaffirmed why our presence in science matters, relaying all the stories of scientific advancements made possible only because women and underrepresented minorities were in the room and heard.
Our experience of Inferior is not unique. The book has served as a starting point for countless conversations around the world, launching book clubs and world tours. Now, we want to bring that conversation into schools around the world with a crowdfunding campaign to get the book into every public school library. Inferior has become a manual for activists like ourselves to speak up and call out inequality. It has armed us with evidence for a phenomenon we’ve long understood: that the language of science has been wielded to legitimize and reinforce stereotypes that are all too convenient for men in power. It has given so many people we know a voice—and we want to share that voice with young minds the world over.
We might not get every girl in America to choose AP Physics, but we can start having better, more informed conversations about the importance of science in the fight for equity—and be empowered to fight back when people tell us what we can and cannot do. And we can continue making the case for why representation is essential for sustaining a scientific enterprise that can truly benefit us all.
So far, we have managed to get a copy of Inferior to every library of every U.K. state (free) high school, and we want to give American students the chance to read it too. We have launched the campaign in New York City, aiming to get the book into all 517 junior and senior public high school libraries. You can help us give more young people the confidence to challenge bias and the strength to trust their own interests by joining the campaign here: https://gofundme.com/challenge-bias-in-nyc-schools