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Women's rights

Clever girl

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Essay | 11 minute read
What will it take for women to be seen instinctively as natural geniuses - asks Angela Saini, an award-winning science journalist and author

Literary festivals are funny things when you’re not famous. I’ve been going to them for about a decade now, and although I love meeting readers, I find getting to know fellow authors sometimes wonderful, other times relentlessly awkward. There’s a subtle sizing up. What do you write about? Who’s your publisher? It can feel like a game designed to gauge where to place you in the literary hierarchy, to size up your smarts, to figure out how much attention to pay you. It’s not fun. But when you’re a woman, it can be worse.

I’m used to being ignored at male-dominated science conferences. Goodness knows, it washes over me now. But even at literary festivals I’ve attended with my husband – events awash with women – people assume that I’m there to accompany him rather than the other way around. At one in India I sat next to a male author over dinner, politely listening to him talk at length about himself, rolling my eyes as he unsuccessfully tried to pick up the younger woman sitting on the other side. When he finally asked me a question, it was with a nod to my young son and a patronising smile: ‘So you’re a housewife?’

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

At the same festival, an Indian public intellectual told me that he didn’t agree with an argument I had made. When a white, American, male journalist on our panel repeated what I had said minutes later, he suddenly and remarkably changed his mind. Was I existing in a parallel universe, I thought to myself? One in which the same thoughts have different meaning?

Hands up. Is there a woman out there who doesn’t know how this feels? It’s almost our lot in life to bear the insufferable condescension of men who automatically believe they’re smarter than us. Even when they’re trying to be nice, a few still manage to come off as insulting. I recall a charming Cambridge University professor, who, keen for me to endorse his new book, introduced me to an audience as a woman who was unusual in being so good at maths. He expected me to smile. And I didn’t know what else to do.

Studies show that women have, at best, a reasonably accurate estimation of their own intelligence. More often, we underestimate. In one study published in 2018 in Advances in Physiology Education, researchers at Arizona State University asked students whose grades were about average how smart they thought they were. Women were far more likely to downgrade their intelligence. The men questioned were three times more likely to think they were smarter than the person they were working with.

Another study, this one published in American Psychologist in 2018, asked 347 people to refer individuals for a job. Half of them were told that this job needed high-level intellectual ability and the rest weren’t told this. People were almost 40 per cent less likely to refer a woman for the job if it mentioned high intellect. These findings speak to a deep-seated and widespread social stereotype that women can’t be really clever, not in the same way that men are. A stereotype so entrenched that women themselves begin to believe it.

It’s an old idea. At the birth of Enlightenment science, women were considered naturally incapable of great intellectual achievement. And so they were automatically barred from membership of the scientific academies of Europe. In the same year that the brilliant scientist Marie Curie won her second Nobel Prize, she was denied membership of the French Academy of Sciences because of her sex. She may have proved her genius in the laboratory, but she couldn’t make all her male peers accept it. It took until well into the middle of the twentieth century for women to be admitted to the Royal Society in London.

We have lived with the idea of male intellectual superiority for so long that we internalise it. Drip-fed as babies with a belief in our own inferiority, girls start to assume that they can’t be brilliant. If they succeed, it must be that they are Hermione Grangers – you know, hard-working. Only Harry Potters are born with a spark of brilliance. Humility, alongside this work ethic, becomes a female virtue. So should it surprise us that in another experiment in which a group of children are told to choose teammates for a game, the half told that it is only for ‘really, really smart’ children are significantly less likely to pick girls to play?

In her recent book, Biased, the Stanford psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt (incidentally, a recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant) notes that women are disadvantaged in the workplace if they appear to be too clever. She cites the work of sociologist Natasha Quadlin, who found that CVs from men with high grades received twice the number of job callbacks as those from women with the same grades. ‘The men were expected to be high achievers,’ writes Eberhardt, while ‘the women were expected to get along with everyone.’ She argues that how we perceive someone’s talent depends on who that person is – influenced by their race as well as their sex.

Television news has long been one of the greatest perpetrators of the myth of male genius. As Naomi Wolf observed in The Beauty Myth, the American viewing public has for decades been routinely presented with male newsreaders (not hired for their looks, if their looks were anything to go by), free to occupy these positions into old age. Female newsreaders, on the other hand, seem contractually obliged to look youthful, beautiful and perfect until they’re fired. The message is that the man is there to provide intellectual weight and authority, while the woman is an interloper in the world of male genius. It’s not her brain but her looks that allow her to be there at all.

British news, while perhaps a little better, can still be pretty bad. I recall the humiliation when, on the eve of my first book being published and having just won an international journalism award for a BBC investigation, I was called in for a meeting with the then managing editor of Channel 4 News – only to be asked if I’d be interested in being their new weather girl. That editor has since left, but almost a decade later, the memory of it still burns me. I remember crying all the way home, a close friend consoling me over the phone, knowing my pain only too well because she had worked in that same newsroom.

Even women who have managed to establish themselves through decades of hard work are treated abysmally. Take the Cambridge classicist Mary Beard, who even now is expected to field insults to both her appearance and the quality of her work. In the Times Literary Supplement in April 2019, she wrote about the deeply misogynistic criticism she receives on social media. One tweet, reaching straight for the vagina without a hint of irony, asked, ‘Is Beard as useless as a used tampon?’

What do we do with this? We move on and we develop ways to handle it. Some of us might dress differently. We erase away our femininity, anything that might be mistaken for frivolity – the jewellery, the makeup, the short skirts, the high heels – accessories that could betray us as being anything other than serious. At university, I wore flats the entire time and stopped wearing nail polish, conscious of being one of few female students in the engineering department. I wore black and grey, perhaps to blend into the walls. The more masculine I could appear, the easier I subconsciously felt it might be for my intellect to be accepted along with those of other men. My brain could enter their domain if my body could fool them into thinking I wasn’t actually a woman at all.

It’s an experience other women might recognise. In a 2016 study titled ‘But You Don’t Look Like a Scientist!’, researcher Sarah Banchefsky and her colleagues at the University of Colorado Boulder found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the more feminine a woman was in her appearance, the less likely she was perceived to be a scientist. They concluded that it benefits a woman in science and engineering to appear less feminine because she will be taken more seriously.

It still breaks my heart to know that women have to do this, as I did. It’s not enough to be smart, to work hard, to have the qualifications. You also need to prove to the world that you are the person they don’t believe you can be. There are countless iterations of the clever man. He can be young, he can be handsome, he can be old, he can be shabby or chic, he can be anything he likes and still be accepted. But there’s only one clever woman. She is a caricature, bounded by expectation.

We have our place and we’re expected to stick to it. How dare a woman have big ideas? I’ve lost count of the number of male authors who have held forth on such grand topics as religion (Richard Dawkins), human nature (Steven Pinker), the end of history (Francis Fukuyama), the history of humanity (Yuval Noah Harari), with barely a speck of humility. They’re not even embarrassed when they’re wrong. To this day, Pinker beats the drum for his theory that we are becoming less violent as a species, as laid out in his 2011 book The Better Angels of our Nature, despite all the global political chaos and violence. It’s not him who has failed to see that the path of history perhaps isn’t as simple as he might think, but we who have failed to recognise his true genius.

When I was writing my last book, Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong, I was stunned to find that prominent male scientists had failed to read legitimate critiques of their theories by prominent female scientists. Their arrogance was astounding. It was as though their belief in themselves, in their own perfection, outweighed any possibility that a woman might be able to prove them wrong. The male genius never countenances the possibility that he can’t know all of history or nature, that perhaps one person can’t contain all that wisdom. He will never admit that maybe he isn’t enough of an authority to judge.

The problem with the label of male genius, even when it is deserved – and of course, it’s a label that men seem to be handed almost without question (the last time I heard it was at the recent death of the comedian Freddie Starr) – is that because it is seen to be endowed by nature, it too often comes twinned with an expectation of natural infallibility. Men, then, get let off the hook once they’re deemed geniuses. Yes, Picasso may have been a misogynist, but let’s not forget that he was a genius! As was Michael Jackson, as was Woody Allen, as was Roman Polanski, as was James Watson, as was V. S. Naipaul… The list goes on. We separate the man from his work because the man is a supposed genius.

Being good at one thing does not make a person an expert on everything else. And it certainly doesn’t give him the right to live beyond society’s rules or moral boundaries. Male genius does not trump all other qualities. And yet we behave as though genius is transcendent. It elevates men to a position beyond reproach, beyond criticism. We let them off the hook for all their other failings. Meanwhile, female genius isn’t seen in the same way. It is fallible. Her cleverness is human, it is real, it is hard work, it isn’t special.

But then, of course, this is the legacy of history and patriarchy. The major religions made men their bearers of knowledge, Enlightenment philosophers entrusted their scientific academies to men, and politics in most countries was always a male domain. Men had the power so they were assumed to have the wisdom. Anything else was an affront to nature. God could only be male.

I rarely meet a clever woman who is full of her own self-importance in the same way that so many clever men are. It’s just not possible, not when women have their belief in themselves beaten out of them by the constant disbelief of others that they are able to achieve anything at all. It is in others’ lack of confidence in us that we lose our confidence in ourselves. We lose faith. We can’t believe that God could be a woman.

Angela Saini’s new book, Superior, is published by HarperCollins