The Books That Made ME with Pragya Agarwal



In this episode of 'The Books That Made Me', Ben Keene (Co-founder of Rebel Book Club) talks to Dr. Pragya Agarwal about 3 nonfiction books that have had a massive impact on her to date, including one that inspired her own book '(M)otherhood' and what gave her the motivation to weave personal stories into her science writing.

She also shares how unconscious bias, the subject of her book 'Sway', can come into play with our own reading habits and within the publishing industry as a whole.


NB. This episode was recorded in June 2022 and Pragya's latest book 'Hysterical' has since been published and can be found in all the usual shops and formats.

About Pragya Agarwal

Pragya Agarwal is a behaviour and data scientist and Visiting Professor of Social Inequities and Injustice at Loughborough University in the UK.

She is the founder of a research think-tank The 50 Percent Project investigating women’s status and rights around the world.

Pragya is the award-winning author of (M)otherhood: On the choices of being a woman, SWAY: Unravelling Unconscious Bias and Wish we knew what to say: Talking with children about race, and a book for children Standing up to Racism. Her most recent book 'HYSTERICAL: Exploding the myth of gendered emotions' was published on 1st September 2022.


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[00:00:00] When we went to parties, I was carrying a book, which sounds completely ridiculous now that I think about it. I've loved books. I love surrounding myself with books. Too many. Some might say, but there are never too many books.


[00:00:19] Welcome to The Books That Made Me, a brand new podcast from Rebel Book Club. And today we are speaking with a rebel author, Dr. Pragya Agarwal, who is a behavioral and data scientist who has worked on both sides of the Atlantic and the world of academia. Written lots of papers, but crucially for us, also brilliant nonfiction books including 'Sway: Unraveling Unconscious Bias', 'Wish we knew what to say: Talking with children about race', 'Motherhood: on the choices of being a woman', and her latest book 'Hysterical: Exploding the Myth of Gendered Emotions'.

Pragya tells us about her journey as an author, why she tackles these important issues, and also shares stories of the books that have made her. For those that follow Pragya online, you'll see that she is not afraid to take on any part of the establishment with her strong views, evidence, and ideas for change. And she does that again in our conversation today. Professor Pragya, welcome.


[00:01:23] Thank you, Ben. It's great to be here. Um, wow, that's quite an introduction. I'm really honoured.


[00:01:29]  You deserve the introduction and it's only a snippet of who you are. So, um, for those that haven't come across you, let's start with where we are today. You are about to release, I believe, is it your fourth publication, your fourth non-fiction book? Hysterical. Is that right? Tell us a little bit about the book and, um, and how you're feeling about it right now.


[00:01:49] Yes, that's right. Um, so 'Hysterical: Exploding the Myth of Gendered Emotions' comes out on the 1st of September [2022]. Um, right now I'm in that state of kind of a bit of a limbo pre-public where you think, oh gosh, is anybody ever going to read it? Um, on one hand, you think, I hope nobody reads it. On the other hand, I worry about nobody reading it. It's all those kinds of anxieties, I think.


[00:02:17] Um, do you still have that imposter syndrome even though you are well into this career?


[00:02:22] I think it never goes away. Um, if you speak with any author, I don't think it ever goes away because every new book is kind of a new start. Um, it's a different topic you are putting forward. It's a different idea you're putting forward in the world and you always worry about how it'll be received, um, whether you've done it justice or not. Um, and I think, um, it's not as much imposter syndrome. It's, uh, it's more whether your ideas merit a readership. I think, um, you believe that in your heart, but I think those anxieties still are there. Um, so yeah, I'm excited about this as well. I'm really excited about some people reading it, uh, who are currently reading the early proof copies and hearing what they think.


[00:03:10]  And your books from our perspective always jump out for two reasons. I think one, because you write at the intersection of what really matters in society, um, representing voices that haven't been heard quite as much as they should have been in the past and trying to influence change, but also they're just really well packaged and bold. So tell us about a little bit about Hysterical. Um, and why it's called Hysterical and what people can expect.


[00:03:39] Yeah. So Hysterical, and thank you so much for saying that. I do think that the whole package matters and, uh, Canongate has done a great job with it, my publishers, and, um, I think a lot of people make a book. The words are mine, but the whole team has this whole team effort in making a book.

Um, Hysterical is called Hysterical because it talks about how through history and looking at historical archives, but through scientific investigation, how our emotions have been gendered. Um, how certain stereotypical attributes have been assigned to men and to women or these kind of tropes or binaries of masculine feminine attributes or this polarization. Even in terms of our emotions, um, have led or perpetuated or reinforced gender bias and how it has disadvantaged not just women, but also men in a lot of cases.

So, um, it is called Hysterical because we know, um, through history, um, in the past, women's bodies and minds were considered inferior to men. They were labeled hysterical because it was predominantly assigned to women to start off with. It was considered a feminine malady, uh, in which, uh, a negative perception of women. And it is often still used as a weaponized against women who tend to show emotions in the public domain. So if you are showing anger or if you're showing any kind of intense emotion or passion, you can be called hysterical and it can be weaponized to shut or silence people down to say, are you being hysterical?

Are you being oversensitive or are you being over emotional? And which means that it can be used to often invalidate perfectly valid emotional responses as well. So that is why this book is called Hysterical because there's a long history of how this word has been weaponized to silence people, especially women.

Um, I look at historical research, but I look through scientific experiments and data and through brain cognitive science, through neuroscience about how our brains are shaped, whether there is actually a masculine or feminine brain, and then how it impacts women in the political domain, in workplaces, in medical diagnosis and treatment.

And even in technologies, we are seeing, uh, advent of sex robots and how that is even informed by patriarchy and these gendered emotions. So, So that's, uh, that's about how we can own our emotions and be our authentic selves.


[00:06:14] And it feels like from, from our perspective, a great sort of follow to, uh, a book we read last year as a club, Invisible Women by your Sister from another Mother, Caroline Criado-Perez.

I'm curious about from your point of view, what drives, uh, the storytelling or what you focus in on? Is it the data? Uh, you're a data scientist, professor of social inclusion at Loughborough? Is it the, is it the data in the science or is it, uh, uh, seeing an injustice in society and wanting to try and understand it and change it?


[00:06:47] That's a great question. I think, I think all of those things go side by side together. Obviously it comes from personal experiences as well. Um, it is driven by personal experiences. It's driven by stories that I read and hear about, is driven by experiences of other people that I read and hear about. It's driven by history and how history has shaped where we are today, our systemic and structural hierarchies and how it results in these kind of inequalities, often implicit, sometimes explicit, that we don't consider and we don't talk about.

So it's about making visible those kind of injustices that we, that can be under the radar or we assume that we just take them for granted. We assume that that's the case, that's the status quo. It's about challenging the status quo and saying, so yes, it comes from all those things. But yeah, I use a lot of data to inform. The, uh, my, my research and to justify the arguments as well, because I present them as evidence to show actually it's not just something I'm making up or it's not just something I'm saying because it's my personal experience.

This is also validated by research and this is also supported by evidence. So I think it all works together. My work has always been very interdisciplinary, so I borrow and, and, and look into these. Make these boundaries fluid between different disciplines and different domains as well, because they are in life.


[00:08:14] That's true. And that's, that's what's great. So, um, and, and before we get into the books that, that you've read that have, have shaped you as a person or some of them...


[00:08:36] I think curiosity is a big part of it because I'm a researcher at heart. Um, I am, I've always, always had these multiple tabs open. My, my computer's very messy, as is my brain. I have all these different threads that are linking together.

I'm constantly thinking about ideas and I'm constantly going down these rabbit holes trying to find out things. If why, why did this happen? When did this happen? How did we get here? Um, trying to understand the state of humankind, I suppose. Why are we here and where are we going and how do we get to a perfect world? We are always looking for a perfect world, some kind of utopia. So I think that's where it's driven from.

But also anger of, of course, uh, anger is something that. Um, mobilizes us. Um, and somebody telling me I can't do certain things also mobilizes me. Um, sometimes people saying maybe it's just outside your limits or maybe it's too ambitious. That also, um, pushes me on. So all those things.


[00:09:30] Okay, so carrot and stick, which is a good combination. Um, now when I asked you to pick out three non-fiction books that had shaped you as a person, you said, this is my worst nightmare, Ben, how am I supposed to do this? Um, so tell us a little bit briefly about your relationship with reading and then let's dive into that, that book, the first book you did manage to pick out.


[00:09:51] Um, since I, I've loved reading and I've loved books since I was very little. Um, I've had this really intense relationship. I carried a book everywhere since I could walk, so I'm told. But I also remember that I, I think maybe that was a way of kind of protecting myself against people. I didn't really like talking to people much when I was growing up, so I was spending a lot of time in the library, or even with when we went to parties, I was carrying a book.

Sounds completely ridiculous now that I think about it. Um, but yeah, I've always escaped to worlds that I don't know yet or I haven't seen yet through books. As a child, I was doing that with words that I hadn't experienced yet. Um, so yes, I've loved books. I love surrounding myself with books. I love all these books around me in the house. Too many, some might say, but there are never too many books, so, um, So, yes, so that's my nightmare to choose three books because how do you, who do I choose three books?


[00:10:35]  Well, we could do a six-hour version of this episode, but that wouldn't be helpful for you. So tell us about the, and then you've given us, you have chosen three. Yeah. So tell us about the first one. I don't know what order you want to go through them, but pick out the first one and tell us why it's so important to you.


[00:11:06] So I'll start with, um, one of the books that, um, in, no, in No, um, order really, um, 'A Life's Work' by Rachel Cusk.

Um, I really loved this book. When I first read it. I first read it when I just had my twins. I was in the throws of early motherhood. I was really struggling, but I didn't really have the words to say I'm struggling because often we don't talk about that. Um, it's also the guilt and the shame you carry that you are not able to cope with this, the early motherhood.

Um, you should immediately fall in love with your children. You should find it all easy. Um, they should come naturally. You should find it easy. I think that's kind of some of the messages we internalize, especially I think as mothers, but generally parents as well. But when I read that book, I, I was really taken aback by her honesty.

And I know she got a lot of, uh, kind of negative reviews about some people didn't like the fact that she talked about it so honestly, but it really, um, made me realize how she had channeled her own personal experience in such an honest way. Such a, it's a vulnerable thing to do. And I think that has kind of led to some of the things that I have written as well.

So at that time, I was thinking about writing my book, "Motherhood: On the Choices of Being a Woman." And I think that really gave me a lot of hope and energy to think about how we can use our own experiences as a stepping stone to talk about a broader conversation, have a broader conversation around these issues. And that motherhood is not a mundane thing that just happens to everybody.

We have our own unique stories, and sometimes we don't hear some of the stories and perspectives in motherhood, and also in womanhood. So I think that was one of the things I really love. I really love her writing. It's very honest, it's very frank, it's very direct. I had the fortune to do a masterclass workshop with her at Faber Academy with Rachel, and it was really great to speak with her about how she writes, the process of writing these things as well, how she uses personal experiences and creates these narratives and drives the narrative forward. So I think that was one of the books that really gave me a lot of hope and also inspired some of my own writing as well.


[00:13:36]  It sounds great about Rachel Cusk's book for you is that it not only helped you in that challenging moment of becoming a mother of twins but also inspired you as an author and an activist in the book itself. So this is a big question on that topic before we move on to your second book, but let's explore it briefly.

Where are we at now with the conversation of motherhood and womanhood? Is it moving forward thanks to, you know, Rachel's work, your work, and many others? Do you think there is generally a more open, honest discussion going on in this space?


[00:14:08] I think certainly in the last couple of years, we've seen this conversation move forward in some ways and move backward in some ways as well. When my book was sent to publishers early 2020, there were some replies like, um, I was just thinking about it because it's been a year since "Motherhood" was published just now in June. So I was just thinking about when this book was published. There was kind of a reaction from some of the editors or publishers that motherhood has everything's been written about motherhood. It's kind of a mundane thing. There's nothing new.

They also found this whole combination, this hybrid format that I used in that book, particularly I've written a lot of my books about memoir and scientific and historical research and going along these different directions. They didn't know how to put it, where it would sit in the bookshelf. But I think over lockdown, we were talking more about parenting, but also motherhood in particular because it was an experience that was being shared by so many. When we were in lockdown, we were mothering and parenting intensely at home without childcare, without schools, while managing our work.

So I think some of these issues that mothers face on a regular basis about childcare, about affordable childcare, about mental load, about emotional load came forth. But then we also see how reproductive rights have come under danger across the world, especially in the US but Hungary, Poland, so women's reproductive rights are under threat.

And so, so this discussion has also become more pertinent and I suppose more expansive about it. I wanted to write a book which was more intersectional and inclusive, so we were talking about brown and black bodies, but also other aspects of mothering and women being a woman that we don't often consider about trans women, about trans men, about non-binary and how medical diagnosis and treatment, what social perceptions differ in that.

And I think, um, you would probably agree the discussion around trans rights has become quite heated recently and about what is a woman is something that we are debating more intensely these days. So yes, I think in some ways this discussion has moved forward, but at some points, I think sometimes we are moving backwards to kind of, um, going into the dark ages. We are in the danger of running back into the kind of things that we thought we had overcome in the past.


[00:16:35] Yeh and imagine being at the center of that is a really weird and frustrating feeling because you're right, it's like a polarization on one side. You can think, look at all this progression. And we have conversations I know in our community about women who are consciously deciding not to have children or to go down a different fertility path because of technology, careers, and so on.

And then on the other side, obviously the issues that you've just mentioned and the abortion rights thing coming up again in the States. Yeah. Just seems wild. Um, so we're actually reading "The Transgender Issue" by Shon Fay this month at Rebel Book Club. So we're learning a lot about that.

And someone you've just reminded me of, I enjoyed chatting with recently is Jaspreet Kaur. I don't know if you've connected with Jaspreet about her manifesto. Um, a Brown Girl Like Me, she's going out around the country talking about these issues right now. So there is a lot going on that's positive in this space, isn't there, in educating people.


[00:17:29] So it turns out you don't just need to be a published author to have books change your life. We see this happen every month at Rebel Book Club, and we're also seeing our members reading habit shift as well towards listening to more books to fit around their busy digital lives on the move. So when we found out about a new audiobook service called xigxag, we were excited to give it a spin.

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Now, talking of books that change lives...


[00:18:51]  So that first book, brilliant suggestion because it clearly aligns, joins the dots up. Well, what about your second choice?


[00:18:59]  Um, the second book is called "The Emperor of All Maladies."


[00:19:05] The Emperor of All Melodies. Yeah, it's a funny title, isn't it? "Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer."


[00:19:11] And I love that book. I read this quite a while ago, and I really love this book because it showed me what great science writing can be about, that there is the personal in it. But it's linked very much to scientific writing. And so he uses his personal experience of cancer in his family to go into a broader discussion of his professional experience as a specialist, as a medical professional, and to discuss this whole story of cancer and history of cancer.

And it was really eye-opening for me because science writing can sometimes be considered dry and inaccessible. And this book, as I said, really showed me what good science writing can be about, about how we can use the personal to go into the political as well. And I think all my three choices are like that, how personal is political, and I think some of my work, perhaps I try to emulate that in my own writing about that particular philosophy.

So, I just really adored this book.


[00:20:21] Yes. And it reminds me of "When Breath Becomes Air," which a lot of us read, which was sort of a very sad, ultimately story of this doctor who had brain cancer but wrote about it from a medical and personal perspective. And I think, you know, in nonfiction, which you clearly have taken on and perfecting in your work, this combination of science and storytelling - it's so powerful because the point of nonfiction is to get closer to some truths and learn and then use that. But we don't usually do that unless there's a powerful human story involved. It kind of disappears, doesn't it, over our heads?

Um, what's been, in terms of your own writing, what story or what part of your work has resonated the most so far with people, do you think?


[00:21:10] Um, it's difficult for me to say. Um, the kind of feedback I get is that people feel seen sometimes, right? Because they didn't hear anybody talking about the same experiences, like for Motherhood. I got a lot of feedback from mothers, women who are from the South Asian community, especially who hadn't heard anybody talk about abortion or talk about infertility, even IVF, from a black or brown perspective.

Cause we still don't see those stories about miscarriage, all those kinds of things. And I think that's, I think that is something that I want to do through my work, is to create a platform where people's stories can be heard, different stories can be heard, where people get seen or heard.

Um, it's about shining the light on some of these. It's not me saying, "I want to tell your story, I want to be your mouthpiece," but creating a space where people feel free and get rid of some of the shame or guilt or other kind of negative aspects that might stop them from telling their own stories.

So, I think that, and also I think Sway really resonated with, has resonated with people because they felt, I come in it from a very non-judgmental perspective about that. I am biased and so are you. It's not like me sitting in judgment over you. So, I think that is the kind of accessible, narrative-driven, non-judgmental writing that I want to do, which shines a light on different kinds of stories and injustices in the world. Inequality.


[00:22:49] Yeah. So this was your, I don't know what order it comes in. Was Sway written before Motherhood?


[00:22:53] Yes. Yes. Sway was the first one that came out in 2020. And then "Wish We Knew What to Say: Talking with Children About Race," which obviously a lot of parents and educators and carers really appreciate because it gives them tools and strategies to have some of these complex conversations with children of all ages, especially the younger ones.

Um, then "Motherhood" came out in June last year, and I also had a picture book, "Standing Up to Racism" last year, which is for preschoolers, which is about how we can empower young children and have conversations around race and racism with young children. So it's a picture book. And now 'Hysterical'.

Ben K:

[00:23:32] So you are a machine in terms of the productivity of this?


[00:23:33] (laughs) Yeah.

Ben K:

[00:23:51] So "Sway," for those who haven't heard of these books by Pragya, is unraveling unconscious bias. And I remember one of the books that I think got close to your top three but didn't quite make it was Reni Eddo-Lodge's book, "Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race," which we read three years ago.

And I think for a lot of us in the Rebel Book Club community, who weren't seeing - you know, because of white privilege - was suddenly like, "Oh, this is something that we didn't realize. We are racist by default of our culture and our history." So that was a big moment for us.

And, and just briefly on "Wish We Knew What to Say," for those with children who are interested in that part of communicating racism and white privilege, how do you help communicate with a child on a topic like that?


[00:24:28] I think it comes again from a scientific perspective. So thinking about it from a developmental psychology perspective about why children form these biases, how do they come about? Because they're not born with the biases. Any kind of gender or racial bias or any other kind of bias or prejudice, these become ingrained in them. So how do they pick up these implicit messages from around them?

How do they, as they're growing up between zero to four or four to eight, how do they, because of their way they're growing up and they're forming these in-group and out-group associations, they're kind of social-centric, things are becoming stronger. Why are they forming these prejudices? So it goes through different age groups. It talks about developmental psychology.

It also gives a list of questions that we can ask children because we assume sometimes when I talk with parents, they say, "My child has never asked these questions. They seem happy playing with everybody." And we assume that if the child is not asking questions, they're not making these assumptions about different groups of people and due to transductive reasoning, they're not assigning these stereotypes and labels to different groups of people. So I think having an active conversation or taking an active lead in having these conversations with a child from a young age, how do we do that? What kind of questions and strategies can we use?

Um, but also it is very important that as parents and educators, of all ethnicities, not just for white people, we all have to address some of that because it's not just an issue of black and white. We can internalize some of these racist messages as well. There's colorism in the South Asian community. There's anti-black sentiment in the South Asian community as well.

So how do we do that so that we are not just making our children into allies, but also giving them a sense of self-worth and self-esteem no matter which ethnic group or racial group they belong to or identify with? So that is the aim of the book, how we empower children to create change, to create social change, to feel confident about their self-identity.

Because we know that when children code-switch between home and school or home and outside and try to adopt the kind of majority norms or conform to it, it takes a lot of cognitive resources, which can create mental health problems and also impact their work in schools.

So it gives a lot of tools, active tools and strategies to counter some of those.


[00:26:52] This is why I'm learning, as I suspected with you, that the multidisciplinary approach you have to your work is so important, right? Because there you've got the neuroscience, the psychology, the anthropology, the history, and then the context of modern life and media our kids are growing up in.

One more book, I know you have about a hundred more, but give us one more book that's had a big impact on you?


[00:27:17] Uh, yeah, so now this is difficult because, as I said, Reni Eddo-Lodge's book is really great. I really loved her book, but I wanted to mention Audrey Lorde's book about her cancer journey. I know we talk about her other books, "The Master's Tools" and "Sister Outsider," but I think this is a book that really, once again, showed me how personal can be political and much like any of our other work, it's very intersectional in approach. So I think that's key, that intersectionality is key to so much of my own writing and work as well.

And I was so inspired by her writing because she, a black, feminist, lesbian, she's talking about her body in a very honest way without shame. And some of these themes that we can internalize as women about our own bodies, about how we talk about our bodies. And she's, again, so frank and honest and vulnerable, but informed by so much of her own philosophy around race and around gender and around intersectionality and around identity and privilege and power.

And she talks about power and privilege in such a nuanced manner. It's a really fantastic book.

Ben K:

[00:28:35]  There we go. Big shout out for that book. Um, do you feel in terms of the publishing industry and the examples you've given today - and obviously your own writing, it shows it's shifting - but the biases in the publishing industry... We did a study in our own community about how we choose as a club. So we're a small team of four curating books every month and shortlisting every month on different topics. And then how our members choose books and the biases, you know, we're a 75% female community, and yet more often than not, male authors get chosen even when we're shouting about it. And the unconscious bias there of like, you know, the trusted male, you know, academic type thing. Do you see the publishing industry shifting? Or what would help it accelerate the change?


[00:29:22] Uh, I think it is shifting, but slowly. And I think the shift can happen more rather than just in a tokenistic manner. If we consider who the gatekeepers in the publishing industry are, and if we truly have to make the industry inclusive and accessible for people, which is very London-centric still, which is very white middle-class still, and who are the people who are not rising above the ranks? Who are the decision-makers ultimately?

There might be a lot of editorial interns and publishing interns who are from a diverse community, from marginalized groups, and that does make a difference because people see role models and representations. But the people who are making these decisions are still not very diverse. And that changes things because it depends and then it determines which books they think are the ones worth choosing or publishing, which are the books they think people are going to like and want to read. And so those decisions are determined unconsciously, often implicitly, by their own preferences and their own view and perspective on the world.

So I think we need to think more about accessibility and inclusivity more broadly rather than just in terms of the pool of interns or at a lower level in publishing, but also agents and book sellers and all that kind of thing matters because ultimately those are the people who are championing books as well.

Um, and if we don't have people who are constantly reflecting on their own biases and seeing why am I promoting a book? Is it because I have a certain kind of bias, as you say, status bias against a certain group of people that they are better writers?

And I think we need to dismantle some of those echo chambers that we get trapped in, because ultimately we get so much of our recommendations from social media feeds. "Oh, this book is getting talked about more. This book is on different lists in different magazines. This book is being chosen by this book club," and so it gets assigned a different status and more people read it, and it becomes a kind of vicious cycle where because more people are reading it, it is seen to be better than others.


[00:31:52] Yeah. We are our own algorithms in that sense, that are biased right? And they have to join Rebel Book Club or somewhere else to take them out of it. Just on that front, like the, you know, this world of BookTok, you know, on TikTok, I was listening to a talk yesterday saying, actually the most disruptive media brand in the world today is TikTok. It's not owned by the Murdoch Press.

Does that give you hope that, and are you seeing evidence - I don't know if you've researched that sort of media bias side of things - that things are changing because of that, or are these platforms really just another corporate structure that enhances the status quo?


[00:32:31] Um, I haven't been brave enough to venture onto TikTok yet, but I think I should. But I've been looking into bias in social media for a while, in technology, and I've written about that and I've talked about it quite a lot. Um, yes, our algorithms are designed in a way, our technology is designed in a way that perpetuates certain words and actions and biases. But yes, I think there are disruptors everywhere and the more people that disrupt, the more we can challenge the status quo.

But there's an issue with that because every time you challenge the status quo, there'll always be a backlash against it. So we have to get over that initial discomfort of having that because we need to think about why are we challenging this status quo? What do we achieve? How do we do it in the best manner as well? So yes, technology can perpetuate and reinforce some of these biases, but the more we talk about it in real life and the real world, I think we can bypass some of these biases.


[00:33:36] Totally. And so if Bloomsbury or Penguin or Random House sort of headhunted you tomorrow for CEO, the answer is what?


[00:33:46]  I don't think they will, so we'll see. I'll make my decision.


[00:33:50]  I'm sure you'll be too. distracted by writing the next. Uh, so Pragya, last question to bring us back to what your focus is now, "Hysterical." Um, so gendered emotions. Describe to those that this is new language to them perhaps. What is it? What are gendered emotions, and then how does "Hysterical"... and how are you trying to help people navigate this?


[00:34:18]  Yeah. So, um, gendered emotions in a very basic sense means that certain emotions are validated or acceptable in certain people and not others. So if you're a woman, for instance, there's a perception that anger is a negative emotion. Throughout history and even now, anger is seen as a negative emotion in women.

Um, if you show, as I said, if you show a little emotion in the workplace, you can be branded very easily as a hysterical person or that you're overreacting, and your perfectly valid opinions can be dismissed. We see that in medical diagnosis and treatment as well. Women's conditions like endometriosis or women's own bodies can be misjudged or misdiagnosed because they are perceived to be overestimating their pain.

On the other hand, men are often expected not to cry. There is a general perception that masculinity means holding in emotions, putting on a brave face, and being stoic. There is also the stereotype that men are more rational and logical, while women are more emotional. Even now, we see instances where these biases are reinforced.

For example, a Nobel Prize winner made a comment in South Korea stating that the problem with having women in the lab is that they might fall in love with you or make you fall in love with them, and when you criticise them, they cry. He later claimed it was a joke, but it's not funny at all because it reinforces biases against women and perpetuates the idea that men are better suited for certain jobs because they are perceived as less emotional, more rational, logical, and calmer. While women can be very emotional and deal with emotions, there is a negative perception of emotions, and a polarized view is created, pitting rationality against emotionalism.

Emotion and rationality are often portrayed as opposing binaries. Throughout history, masculinity and femininity have also been seen as binary opposites. Feminine ideals are associated with passivity, self-sacrifice, nurturing, and maternal instincts, while men are expected to be authoritative and dynamic. These stereotypes contribute to biases in the workplace. In politics, we can observe numerous examples of bias.

I want to highlight a book that delves into historical instances, such as the burning of witches in Middle England, where those who were perceived as going against the norm were punished. These historical examples then lead to a neuroscience investigation of how boys and girls are treated differently.

The investigation reveals something different because we are familiar with the poem that categorizes boys as made of "snips and snails" and girls as "sugar and spice." However, my neuroscience research shows that there is no inherent difference between a masculine or feminine brain. The disparities we observe are largely a result of gendered socialization and the messages embedded in our society as we raise our children.

In those models, there's some very interesting research that shows even parents who consider themselves egalitarian still use different tones of voice and words when interacting with girls and boys. Boys are often encouraged to be wild, play aggressively, and take more risks, while girls are spoken to in softer tones, protected more, and discouraged from taking as many risks. So even when we believe we don't have biases, we inadvertently perpetuate them because we are deeply ingrained in society.

As I mentioned, I examine how technology is also influenced by these gendered emotions and what implications it holds for our future. Ultimately, it's a call for us to recognize and own our emotions, acknowledging that emotions themselves are not inherently bad. We just need to eliminate the gendered polarization surrounding them.


[00:38:32] Well, this is not just a call to action, but also a call to pre-order the book. I will certainly be doing that. So "Hysterical" will be released on September 1st [2022]. It's a great read to wrap up the summer and prepare for the back-to-school mindset and parenting.

Personally, I feel seen from the insights you've shared in the last five minutes. Even for those of us who strive to engage and educate ourselves, it's an ongoing learning process.

And of course, it's important to acknowledge that this perspective comes from a place of privilege, with the luxury of time and choice. So, it's a significant undertaking.

Thank you so much for generously sharing your time and wisdom today and, more importantly, for your incredible work over the decades. You are making a positive impact on society and people's lives. Thank you, Pragya.


[00:39:34]  Thank you so much for having me, Ben. It's been a pleasure.

Hosted by

Ben Keene, who is the Co-Founder of Rebel Book Club and curious about people’s life-changing books.

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