When Angela Saini’s book Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong came out in 2017, it created a right bit of a stir in all the right circles. It was a well-argued work that successfully decimated the long-standing gender imbalances and stereotypes that science has bestowed upon women down the ages and went on to win the Physics World Book of the Year and the Goodreads Choice Awards. She’d earlier written the book Geek Nation: How Indian Science is Taking Over the World, published in 2011, which went on to become a best seller.
An independent British science journalist and author, Saini presents science programs on BBC radio, writes for publications like The Guardian, The Times, New Scientist, Vogue, Wired and The Economist to name a few. She also has quite a few journalism awards to her credit. Named one of the most respected journalists in the UK in 2018, she’s also won the Association of British Science Writers’ Award for a story she did in The Guardian. In 2009, she was named European Science Journalist of the Year by the Euroscience Foundation.
Her next book, Superior: The Return of Race Science, out now, deals with a current and prickly topic, that of the perception of race superiority and how science continues to believe in biological racial differences. In this interview, Angela D Saini speaks about gender, race and how her work tries to continually challenge biases.
You grew up in London, from a family that had its roots in South Asia. How was it to grow up as a person of color in the UK, what were the biases you encountered as a young girl and how would you say these shaped the career path you eventually chose?
I think every person has their own experiences growing up, some encountering little racism, others a lot. From the age of around 10, my family lived in quite a white, lower-middle-class bit of southeast London, which was very racist. So I had a hard time – not as hard as many – but always made aware of my color and the fact I was thought to be different. As a result, I became involved in anti-racism movements at university, and this is how I ended up in journalism.
I think every person has their own experiences growing up, some encountering little racism, others a lot.
I read that you were the only girl in your math class, your science class, and your engineering class. When you decided to make science your career, was there any resistance you faced from within the family or larger community? I ask this because of the inherent biases that women in science face and the subtle conditioning that most girls grow up with that makes them think that Math and Science are not for girls.
Fortunately, Indian culture prizes engineers and my father had been an engineer – he studied at Punjab University – so I didn’t feel such a great weight of pressure not to do the same. Although I did feel I had to be better than the boys in my class to prove myself because I was the only girl. I worked hard.
How do we tackle the inherent biases at the home and systemic levels to encourage more girls to pursue careers in science? How important is it to have visible women icons in this space?
Representation matters a great deal, and a lot of effort has already gone into encouraging more girls into these careers. But we need to work harder at reducing sexism and sexual harassment in science itself; otherwise, we are just throwing these girls to the wolves.
What made you think we needed a book like Inferior? Was there a trigger point or an incident that led to this epiphany? What are the primary takeaways you would like women to get from Inferior?
There are still so many gender stereotypes around women, and Inferior was my way of understanding them, of trying to pick apart what we think we know. I just wanted to understand what it really means to be a woman.
We need to work harder at reducing sexism and sexual harassment in science itself; otherwise, we are just throwing these girls to the wolves.
Post Inferior, you did a feminist tour across universities. What were the realizations you had post these talks—how prevalent is sexism in academia, and how can this be redressed?
I was stunned by the response. So many women seemed to want to know more, to challenge the biases within their institutions. I’m proud to have played a small part in helping them do that.
As a science journalist, what are the challenges in taking science news to the masses, and also of ensuring there is no gender lens through which this news is perhaps skewed or presented?
It’s the same as in any other type of journalism, you just keep going and do your best, constantly challenging your own biases and others’.
Congratulations on Superior, the premise is very exciting, given these are times when race, the alt-right and race-related prejudices are on the upswing all over again across the world. What made you pick race as your topic for this book, and what do you hope to accomplish with the arguments you present in it?
With the rise of the far right, religious nationalism and ethnic nationalism, racism is becoming art of mainstream political discourse. I wanted to explain where this brand of intellectual racism comes from and why it is so empty.
There are still so many gender stereotypes around women, and Inferior was my way of understanding them, of trying to pick apart what we think we know.
With the insidious rise of eugenics and gene tinkering, the quest for a ‘superior race’ may well become a real and present danger soon. How must the scientific community and policymakers stay more vigilant to ensure that this does not come to pass?
It is literally impossible to gene edit a person’s intelligence, and it may never be possible, so I don’t think we should worry about it too much. We do need to ask ourselves why it matters to us.
After Superior and Inferior, race and sexism, what are you working on now?
I’m working on my first television documentary series for the BBC, and have also just started on a radio documentary.
And finally, with the policing of women’s bodies getting mainstreamed as with the Alabama Abortion bill, do you think we are in danger, as a species of slipping into a future where women are once again controlled by their reproductive abilities? How must women resist this and how can women in science amplify this?
We must never be complacent. We can still lose the rights our fore-mothers fought so hard for, and there are plenty of people who want to take them away. We need to work together, be united, and be unafraid to enter politics.