The best books about women’s science superpowers – and why we don’t know about them

Who am I?

I’m a myth-busting feminist neuroscientist waging a campaign against the rigid gender stereotypes that govern so much of our lives and set so many onto unfulfilling paths. Seeing how often the brain gets dragged into explanations for gender gaps, I put my neuroscience hat on to check back through science and through history to find the truth behind the idea that female brains were different (aka inferior) and that their owners were therefore incompetent and incapable. What a myth! Nowhere does this play out more clearly than in the history of women in science, as shown by the books on this list. 

I wrote...

Gender and Our Brains: How New Neuroscience Explodes the Myths of the Male and Female Minds

By Gina Rippon,

Book cover of Gender and Our Brains: How New Neuroscience Explodes the Myths of the Male and Female Minds

What is my book about?

Do you have a female brain or a male brain? Or are we asking the wrong question? 

On a daily basis we face deeply ingrained beliefs that our sex determines what kind of brain we have, and that these brains will determine our abilities and aptitudes, our preferences and personalities. No women scientists? Blame the Brain! But just how different are females and males? Can brain scientists tell the differences between female and male brains? Are females and males really distinguished by their levels of empathy or their map-reading skills? Drawing on cutting-edge neuroscience, this book revisits these old questions and provides surprising answers. Rigorous, timely, and liberating, The Gendered Brain has huge repercussions for women and men, for parents and children, and for how we identify ourselves.

The books I picked & why

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The Mind Has No Sex?: Women in the Origins of Modern Science

By Londa Schiebinger,

Book cover of The Mind Has No Sex?: Women in the Origins of Modern Science

Why this book?

If you know anyone who still holds on to the belief that science can operate in a political vacuum, please thrust this book upon them! In 1673, a brave philosopher called Francois Poullain de la Barre publicly observed that he saw no reason why women could not be treated as the equals of men in all spheres of influence, including science. The Mind has no Sex, he declared! In this wonderfully readable book on the history of women in science, Londa Schiebinger shows us just how that belief played out. Track the jaw-dropping arrogance of science’s male gatekeepers as they systematically used every trick in their power to exclude women, weaponising their biology against them (Blame the Brain!), demeaning and downgrading their annoyingly evident talents. This book will make you angry – and so it should!

The Lie Tree

By Frances Hardinge,

Book cover of The Lie Tree

Why this book?

Officially classified as ‘Children’s or Young Adults’ literature, but as so often in this genre, it can be read on many different levels. Set in Victorian times, we meet a young girl called Faith, who clearly has immense talent and a fascination for knowledge, desperately wishing to emulate her scientist father. But he dashes her hopes: “Listen, Faith. A girl cannot be brave, or clever, or skilled as a boy can…..Do you understand?” The author cleverly weaves threads of post-Darwinian arguments – which themselves are used to prop up the idea of women’s inferiority - with metaphors around the nature of truth – embodied by the phantasmagorical Tree of Lies – with a gripping adventure story where Faith has to employ her ‘unfeminine’ bravery and scientific abilities. Genuinely thought-provoking and a great read!

Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong-And the New Research That's Rewriting the Story

By Angela Saini,

Book cover of Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong-And the New Research That's Rewriting the Story

Why this book?

If scientists wanted to exclude women, a powerful approach would be to use science itself to demonstrate that female skills would not be fit for science’s purpose, to prop up the idea of female weakness and vulnerability, that there was some kind of evolutionarily determined biological inevitability about women’s status as inferior. Saini’s forensic filleting of the science behind such arguments is a must-read for those wishing to arm themselves against ‘gotcha’ culture, where someone will triumphantly cherry-pick research findings from any branch of science in favour of their own argument. Of course, this works both ways. We are taught to challenge research rather than just accept that it must be true because it is published. Another ire-inducing and thought-provoking read.

The Curie Society

By Janet Harvey,

Book cover of The Curie Society

Why this book?

My other fiction offer is an amazing graphic novel that cleverly characterises scientist super powers. These take the form of three unashamedly nerdy girls who find themselves drawn into the activities of a mysterious secret society founded by Marie Curie – “a clandestine society where brilliant women could pursue the furthest reaches of their intellect”. Via wonderful graphics, we are taken on a roller-coaster ride through history and science, through the revelatory power of individual sciencey skills and the even greater power of team-working. All enhanced by accessible explanations of the science concepts embedded in the story - such a great way to learn about mathematical patterns or magnetic fields in fusion reactors or brain interface technology. Have fun!

Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science-And the World

By Rachel Swaby,

Book cover of Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science-And the World

Why this book?

Just in case the overpowering message from my book choices is that the story of women in science has only been one of exclusion and dismissal, here is something of an antidote; 52 brief biographies of women who had a huge impact on their respective fields of science. It is true that their stories are made more powerful by the skillful reminders of science’s ever-present misogyny – Dorothy Hodgkin’s 1964 Nobel Prize for Chemistry was heralded by the newspaper headline “Nobel Prize for British Wife” – it also offers an optimistic take on how they overcame such obstacles.  In a field where the need for role models is supported by both brain and behavioural science, here is a cornucopia of taster tales to share with both current and future scientists (of any gender!). 

5 book lists we think you will like!

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