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In one of his most influential books, Charles Darwin made an observation about women.

As far as he could tell, women appeared to be sadly lacking compared with men in every sphere of life:

“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,” he wrote in the Descent of Man published in 1871.

What could possibly explain this distinction?

Darwin, although a brilliant scientist, was not immune to bias (Credit: Getty Images)

He assumed that women must be biologically inferior. Of course, he ignored the abundant evidence around him that women didn’t have nearly the same freedom and opportunities as men.

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Female scientists, architects and politicians were certainly scarce in Victorian England, but then this was also a society that didn’t allow women to vote, married women to own property, or women to go to university.

Darwin fell into the easy trap of interpreting structural inequality as biological difference

Darwin fell into the easy trap of interpreting structural inequality as biological difference.

He was suffering from bias. As brilliant a scientist as Darwin was, he couldn’t help but be blinded by prejudice when it came to women. But then, to be fair, he was a Victorian male.

Today we have fewer excuses for egregious sexism, yet many still fall prey to the same trap when it comes to sex difference.

Google and the gender gap

A now-notorious memo written by a young male software engineer, James Damore, this month suggested that the gender representation gap in some of the tech-based and more eminent roles at his employer, Google, might be down to biology.

“Once we acknowledge that not all differences are socially constructed or due to discrimination, we open our eyes,” Damore wrote.


Google CEO Sundar Pichai abruptly cancelled a planned meeting addressing the gender controversy on Thursday (Credit: Getty Images)

The backlash was swift and Damore has since been fired from the company. There has been an enormous global response, both criticising Damore and defending him. On Thursday, Google CEO Sundar Pichai abruptly cancelled a companywide meeting about the controversy due to concerns about employee’s online harassment.

The science on sex difference can only be understood together with the social factors that create gaps

But the science on sex difference can only be understood together with the social factors that create gaps, and by understanding that bias can also skew what scientists tell us.

The Google engineer speculated whether “human nature” might explain why there are so few women in technology, forgetting that Silicon Valley has been plagued by cases of sexism, sexual harassment and discrimination.

A recent survey found that as many as 60% of women have found themselves the target of unwanted sexual advances from a superior. By any measure, Silicon Valley’s problem with women goes beyond their “nature”.

Shedding these prejudices is one of the greatest challenges for male-dominated workplaces

But to be as fair to Damore as we are to Darwin, he isn’t alone in making this kind of error. Gender stereotypes are ingrained in many of us from the day we’re born. From the toys we are given to the way we are handled and spoken to, humans are routinely treated differently depending on their sex.

Research and prejudice

As young as five, children develop assumptions about what is acceptable behaviour for their sex (Credit: Getty Images)

Studies have shown that children as young as five have already acquired a constellation of assumptions about what is socially typical behaviour for their sex.

In one experiment, researchers showed children pictures of people doing everyday things, to see how they recalled these images afterwards. When shown a picture of a girl sawing wood, some incorrectly later believed they had been shown a picture of a boy.

Shedding these prejudices is one of the greatest challenges for male-dominated workplaces.

One of the problems with stereotypes is that they tend to reinforce society’s status quo, maintaining the social order as it is. It is well known that bosses tend to recruit and promote people who remind them of themselves, which leaves any male-dominated organisation in search of more diversity in something of a pickle.

Meanwhile, those who try to change the status quo can find themselves penalised. A recent US study found that women and minorities who engaged in behaviour that valued diversity were rated worse by their bosses. The researchers speculated whether this might be because it draws attention to their sex or race, which triggers gender and racial stereotypes in the minds of others.

It may take generations to root out structural sexism

It may take generations to root out structural sexism. There are tricks, however, to help change the system faster. Implicit bias tests can help people identify their unconscious prejudices. Being open about salaries also helps both women and men spot in a quantitative way if they are being unfairly treated. Tools which take a more direct approach, like positive discrimination and quotas, can redress the balance quickly, even if they don’t tackle the deeper issues of prejudice.

Not everyone is happy with such initiatives. James Damore admitted that his memo to Google staff came partly in response to the company’s diversity programs, which he found “unfair and divisive.” He wrote: “We haven’t been able to measure any effect of our Unconscious Bias training and it has the potential for overcorrecting or backlash.”

In the end, the biggest battle towards equality is in our minds. The best way to beat sexism and other forms of prejudice is to challenge ourselves to think more carefully about the differences we see, rather than jumping to conclusions.

Angela Saini is a British science journalist, broadcaster and author of Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story.

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