Friday Bookshelf: Woman: An Intimate Geography

Many of my Sciblings have a regular Friday feature of one sort or another. For example, Dr. Free-Ride's got her Friday sprog-blogging, and there's Orac's Friday Dose of Woo over at Respectful Insolence. Karmen has Friday Fractals at Chaotic Utopia, which are particularly fun.

So I'm thinking of trying out my own Friday feature, which I am boringly calling "Friday Bookshelf". I've spent years collecting a mini-library of books on gender and science & engineering. Some of my readers will be familiar with more or less all of them; some may know of relatively few of them. I thought I would just pick a book each week and talk a bit about it, and include a short excerpt. I'll try this for a few weeks and you'll let me know if you think this is interesting or a complete waste of time and electrons.

I have compulsively sorted my books by category, so all the gender & science books are in one place, and then alphabetized them by author's last name. It makes it easier to find things, also to determine whether or not I already own a book I'm contemplating purchasing. Several times I've nearly bought books I already own. Don't tell Mr. Zuska. Well, whenever he starts making noises about the piles of books everywhere that I buy and never have time to read, I just calmly suggest that perhaps he doesn't need to record anymore live music since he'll never listen to all the hundreds and hundreds of tapes he's already got. Standoff! And thus is domestic bliss maintained.

The first book in the gender & science section is by Natalie Angier, Woman: An Intimate Geography. I got this book back in 1999 and couldn't put it down once I started reading it. You're probably familiar with Angier and with this book. She's a well-known science journalist for the New York Times and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1991. She writes so well, the text just pulls you along with it, and it's a pleasurable experience. Woman takes on so many myths - historical and scientific - about the female body and skewers them all.

Everything in the book is a delight to read - you'll find ways to counter just about every stupid theory you've ever heard promulgated about "women's innate nature". One of the really delightful chapters is "Evolutionary Psychology on the Couch" in which she really rips to shreds the truly stupefying, entrenched stereotypes that evo psycho tries to pass off as scientific theory about mate choice. Here's an excerpt:

What does it mean if surveys show that women want a man who earns a living wage? It means that men can earn a living wage better, even now, than women can. Men still own and operate most of what can be claimed and controlled. They make up about half of the world's population, but they own somewhere between 75 and 95 percent of the world's wealth - the currency, the minerals, the timber, the gold, the stocks, the amber fields of grain. In her superb book Why So Slow?,Virginia Valian, a professor of psychology at Hunter College, lays out the extent of lingering economic discrepancies between men and women in the United States. In 1978, there were two women heading Fortune 1000 companies; in 1994, there were still two; in 1996, the number had jumped all the way to four. In 1985, 2 percent of the Fortune 1000's senior-level executives were women; by 1992, that number had hardly budged, to 3 percent. A 1990 salary and compensation survey of 799 major companies showed that of the highest-paid officers and directors, less than one half of one percent were women. Ask, and he shall receive...If women continue to worry that they need a man's money to persist because the playing field remains about as level as the surface of Mars - or Venus, if you prefer - then we can't conclude anything about innate preferences. If women continue to suffer from bag-lady syndrome even as they become prosperous, if they see their wealth as still provisional, still capsizable, and if they still hope to find a man with a dependable income to supplement their own, then we can credit women with intelligence and acumen, for inequities abound and find new and startling permutations even in the most economically advanced countries and among the most highly skilled populations of women.

The snippet I cut out of this paragraph gives some statistics about salary discrepencies and includes the startling facts that, while having a degree from a high-prestige institution or working overseas adds a considerable amount of money to a man's income, both things actually subtract money from a woman's income. Angier doesn't give a cite for this directly in the text; I'm sure it's somewhere in the list of references, but I don't know where. If anyone has heard this statistic referred to anywhere else, I would be interested to know about it. Anyway, the chapter goes on to discuss the so-called innate preference of women for older men most hilariously. Angier is good at exposing holes and contradictions in evolutionary psychology's theorizing about women's innate natures, and at one point notes "Evo psyhcos pull us back and forth until we might want to sue for whiplash."

Browsing through this book made me want to re-read the whole thing again. What makes it so delightful is that it is an easy and entertaining read while also transmiting a great deal of useful information. It's the epitome of good science journalism.

And yes, Chapter 4, "The Well-Tempered Clavier", sub-titled "On the evolution of the clitoris" is worth the price of the whole book.

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Thank you! I can't wait 'til next Friday. This is such a great idea, I'll tell all my friends to reserve Friday for Zuska.

I've got the Angier book on my TBR shelf (uh, that's a three-shelf bookcase, with various satellite stashes)--you just bumped it up in the queue! Thanks.

I just finished reading this book, after reading (and adoring) Angier's recent book The Canon. I loved it, and I couldn't believe I had missed it when it first came out.

About the citation for the study that showed that things like working overseas actually decrease a woman's salary: I just ran across that on Virginia Valian's gender tutorial. (I just heard about her work on schemas via the Association for Women Geoscientists - she's got a presentation on her web site to try to disseminate the work to scientists and educators.) Anyway, the graph showing the disparities is on slide 10 of her 2nd tutorial presentation, and the citation is:

Egan, M. L. & Bendick, M., Jr. (1994). International business careers in the United States:
Salaries, advancement and male-female differences. International Journal of Human Resource
Management, 5, 35-50.

the most mind blowing fact to come out of Natalie Angier's "Woman" is that the XX chromosome is "more ancient, stable and enduring" (than that of the XY chromosome) which puts pay to the notion that Eve was born of Adam's rib...or that man is the primary/initial being...and WHY, you might wonder, is this little fact not making headline news????