In her new book, science journalist Angela Saini explores the history behind the idea that women don’t make good scientists.
Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story explains that for hundreds of years, it seemed like common sense to believe that women were inferior to men. After all, it was backed up by “evidence” – women’s bodies were smaller and weaker, their minds absorbed by family life, their role subservient.
We may (or may not) reject the subservient part today, but the idea endures that men’s and women’s brains are wired differently. And that as a result men are better at logical and rational thinking – and the public roles that depend upon these skills – while women are more nurturing, affiliative, and empathetic.
Saini says that’s rooted in longstanding bias, and bogus.
All the latest research on human brains and hormones and all the studies of human behavior demonstrate without a doubt, she says, that men’s and women’s brains are not fundamentally different. Cognitively, their abilities are exactly the same.
Saini is far from the first to make this argument, but she makes it forcefully and authoritatively, and book has been favorably reviewed. What I notice is that she does not address an area where I have a particular interest – that is, the gendered differences in verbal communication and public discourse.
It’s true, men and women do tend to communicate differently – not in every case, but in the aggregate.
And it’s true that men’s style of communication is overwhelmingly considered to be more powerful and authoritative.
Women fall prey to upspeak, breathiness, and a tendency to hesitate and apologize, which undermined their effectiveness. On the other hand, men’s shortcomings – a tendency to interrupt and dominate – have traditionally augmented their power and given them the upper hand.
But why should it be this way?
If Saini is right, and our brains are exactly the same, then the only physical and biological basis for speaking differently is the variation in length of the vocal chords. Men’s are longer and their voices deeper. Women’s are shorter and our voices higher.
Pitch aside, there’s no biological basis for women not to speak as powerfully and authoritatively as men. Culture aside, there’s no defensive reason either.
The idea that women are less powerful as public speakers, and that verbal agility and rational, persuasive, evidence-based argumentation are primarily male skills – is destructive. It puts women at a disadvantage and undermines their professional and political power.
In Inferior, Saini argues that because of their cognitive bias, scientists throughout history haven’t given talented women the credit, recognition, and opportunities they deserve.
We don’t have to perpetuate this stereotype. There’s no shortage of formidable women speakers who give it the lie.
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