TV & Radio
Transsexual tackles sexism in sciences
- Keay Davidson, Chronicle Science Writer
Thursday, July 13, 2006
The debate over men's and women's roles in scientific research is drawing insights from an unusually well-qualified source, a Stanford scientist who has lived on both sides of the gender fence -- Ben A. Barres, a female-to-male transsexual.
In January 2005, then-Harvard President Lawrence Summers caused a brouhaha when he publicly suggested that women are naturally, perhaps genetically, less inclined than men to seek scientific careers. The furor climaxed with his resignation in February.
In an essay published in today's issue of the journal Nature, Barres charges that Summers' suggestion is sexist nonsense that exposes public and academic insensitivity to the severity of discrimination against female science students and scientists.
Barres, a neurobiologist at Stanford Medical School, knows what it's like to be a female scientist and a male one: He is a former female named Barbara who underwent a sex change nine years ago.
Since he became male, "people who don't know I am transgendered treat me with much more respect. I can even complete a whole sentence without being interrupted by a man," Barres writes in his Nature article.
Now 51, Barres grew up in New Jersey, where "I'd dress up like a football player for Halloween." The daughter of a salesman and a housewife, Barres recalls her mother gently smacking her legs to encourage her to sit more like a girl -- demurely, with her legs snugly together -- than like a boy with his legs and arms sprawling all over the chair.
As a girl, Barres sensed she was somehow different from other people. In retrospect, he said in an interview, he is amazed that he didn't realize he had something in common with the many highly publicized transsexuals of the 1960s through the 1980s, such as male-to-female transsexual tennis player Renee Richards and Caroline Cossey, a fashion model and James Bond girl.
"I thought these people were freaks," Barres admitted thinking at the time.
A decade ago, Barres developed breast cancer and had a double mastectomy. When a surgeon advised her she could undergo surgery to regain breast tissue, she fired back, "No way!"
"I was so delighted to have my breasts cut off," he recalled as he lounged in an easy chair in his Stanford office Tuesday.
For decades, the most highly publicized transsexuals have been males to females. They include such notables as former top computer scientist Lynn Conway of Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, who is now a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Michigan, Stanford biology professor and author Joan Roughgarden, and University of Illinois economist Deirdre McCloskey.
The big turning point for Barres came in 1997, when she "got really excited" while reading in The Chronicle about James Green, an Oakland native and female-to-male transsexual. Inspired, Barres consulted with a local specialist on sex reassignment, who began treating her with testosterone to masculinize her body.
She became he: With dark body hair and some thinning on top, Barres would be indistinguishable from most any middle-aged man except for one notable difference: He looks more like 31 than 51.
At Stanford, Barres is a tenured professor of neurobiology who studies cells of the nervous system. He also acts as a mentor to students eager to pursue scientific careers.
So he was flabbergasted by Summers' remarks in early 2005. Barres was even more stunned when some well-known male academics either defended the president's remarks or accused those who criticized him of repressing his free speech.
"Like many women and minorities ... I am suspicious when those who are at an advantage proclaim that a disadvantaged group of people is innately less able," Barres wrote in his four-page essay for Nature.
He said he's haunted by memories of sexist bigotry during his female youth: "As an undergrad at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology," Barres wrote, "I was the only person in a large class of people of nearly all men to solve a hard math problem, only to be told by the professor that my boyfriend must have solved it for me. I was not given any credit."
In his essay, Barres calls for specific efforts to improve science opportunities for female students and academics, including running fair job searches, improving women's chances of winning research grants, and making it easier for women to cover day care costs for their children.
It's also helpful to cultivate male supporters, he said. "It has been 30 years since I was a medical student," Barres recalled, "but I still recall with gratitude the young male student who immediately complained to a professor who had shown a slide of a nude pinup in his anatomy lecture."
Barres also treasures memories of his Harvard doctoral supervisor, David Corey, who encouraged the shy Barres to imitate aggressive male students by approaching distinguished scientific lecturers and asking them questions. Barres said such forthrightness pays off in any career, including science.
"Life, even in science, is a popularity contest," Barres observed.
E-mail Keay Davidson at email@example.com.
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Studies showing sex bias are ignored, says transsexual professor
By Roger Highfield, Science Editor
Women are not advancing in science because of discrimination, says a male professor who has an insight into the debate on whether male brains are better suited to science.
Prof Ben Barres, 51, knows only too well how the male-dominated scientific establishment treats women compared with men.
Nine years ago he was called Barbara. Today, he draws on his own experience as "a female-to-male transgendered person" to write a remarkable commentary in the journal Nature.
Lawrence Summers, a former Harvard University president, caused a furore when he raised the possibility that the dearth of women in the upper levels of science is rooted in biology, whether due to a lack of drive or a fundamental difference in the wiring of their brains.
Marshalling scientific evidence as well as drawing from personal experience, Prof Barres maintains that, contrary to this idea, the lack of women in the upper reaches of research has more to do with bias than aptitude, adding that discrimination is present in Britain as well as the United States.
"I have learned that when it comes to prejudice it doesn't seem to matter so much what the facts are - many men have already decided that women are innately less good at this or that, and data saying otherwise won't always get them to change their minds," says the professor of neurobiology, developmental biology and neurology and neurological sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine.
Was he driven to change sex to succeed?
"The answer is no," Prof Barres says. "I had made it all the way through to tenure before changing sex, so there would not have been any career advantage to changing sex at that point.
''Also, as you may know, transsexuals are highly discriminated against, and alas becoming a transsexual is simply an opportunity to face even more discrimination.
''I have been lucky in this regard that my colleagues at Stanford have been absolutely terrific."
Where some scientists see innate differences between men and women, Prof Barres sees discrimination.
As a young woman - Barbara - he was discouraged from setting his sights on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he ended up receiving his bachelor's degree.
Once there, he was told that a boyfriend must have solved a hard mathematical problem that he had answered and that had stumped most men in the class.
After he began living as a man in 1997, Prof Barres overheard another scientist say: "Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but his work is much better than his sister's work."
From Prof Barres's perspective his science is the same, his interests are the same and he feels the quality of his work is unchanged since his days as a woman.
That he could be treated differently makes Prof Barres angry. What is worse, he says, is that some women do not recognise that they are treated differently because, unlike him, they have never known anything else.
Prof Barres says those who argue in favour of innate differences in scientific ability do so without scientific data to explain why women make up more than half of all graduate students but only 10 per cent of tenured faculty.
Yet scientists of both sexes are ready to attribute the gap to a gender difference.
"They don't care what the data is," Prof Barres says. "That's the meaning of prejudice."
"I am certain that all of the proponents of the Larry Summers hypothesis are well-meaning and fair-minded people," he writes in his Nature commentary.
But he cites data from a range of studies showing bias in science.
For example, when a mixed panel of scientists evaluated grant proposals without names, men and women fared equally well.
However, competing unblinded, a woman applying for a research grant needed to be three times more productive than men to be considered equally competent.
Prof Barres says most scientists want to believe that they are fair, and for that reason overlook data indicating that they probably are not.
Neuroscientist, once a woman, says he saw gender bias firsthand
By Marcella Bombardieri, Boston Globe Staff | July 13, 2006
PALO ALTO, Calif. -- After Stanford neuroscientist Ben A. Barres gave a talk at the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Mass., some years back, a colleague is said to have overheard another scientist remarking that ``Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but then his work is much better than his sister's."
Ben Barres, however, didn't have a sister in academia. The scientist was referring to MIT and Harvard graduate Barbara Barres, who later changed her gender. And became Ben.
In an interview with the Globe, Barres said his understanding of what it's like to be a woman and a man in the sciences proves that women face significant discrimination. But he did not become an active feminist until January 2005, when Harvard president Lawrence H. Summers, who stepped down two weeks ago, suggested that women lack the same ``intrinsic aptitude" for science as men.
Barres has responded with a brash attack on Summers and others in a commentary in today's issue of the scientific journal Nature. Already, two Harvard professors criticized in Barres's article have responded angrily when queried by the Globe, with Harvey C. Mansfield calling Barres ``a political fruitcake," and Steven Pinker saying that Barres has ``reduced science to Oprah." Summers did not respond to requests for comment.
The statements that Summers, Pinker, and Mansfield made about women ``are all wrongful and personal attacks on my character and capabilities, as well as on my colleagues' and students' abilities and self-esteem," Barres wrote in Nature. ``I will certainly not sit around silently and endure them."
With a beard, widow's peak, and middle-aged paunch, Barres, 51, looks and acts convincingly male. Someone who didn't know he was transgendered would probably fail to question his raspy voice, delicate fingers, or skinny but hairy legs. He didn't change gender until he was over 40 and already had tenure, but says he would have done so earlier if he had understood why he felt so uncomfortable in a woman's body.
People in his lab say they never think about Barres being transgendered except when he brings it up. What they notice is a classic science nerd with oversized glasses and boundless enthusiasm for research and for his students. He works around the clock, but finds time to roast gourmet coffee beans that he distributes to people in his lab.
Barres says he always wanted to be a scientist and never felt that being female was an obstacle. It's only in hindsight that Barres sees sexism in a series of slights over the years.
Barbara's high school guidance counselor told her that ``you'll never get in" to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, even though she had top grades and led the math team. She applied anyway and was accepted, graduating in 1976.
Barres loved MIT, even though the student body was only 5 percent female at the time. But one experience stands out: He vividly recalls toiling all day on a take-home math exam, finding an elegant solution to the hardest problem.
The professor told the class that no one had solved the problem, so Barres went up to him afterward. The professor, Barres says, looked at Barbara with disdain and told her that ``my boyfriend must have solved it for me."
Barres wasn't given credit. He says he doesn't recall the name of the professor.
Barbara Barres noticed she was frequently interrupted while speaking. But now, Barres wries, ``I can even complete a whole sentence without being interrupted by a man."
Barres counts himself lucky for his high-flying scientific career, but also says he was in denial about gender bias until Summers's talk and a couple of other events of last year.
In his speech, Summers said that ``my sense is that the unfortunate truth" is that difference in aptitude and women's greater involvement with family explain the dearth of women at the top of the scientific establishment. He said he guessed that discrimination was a lesser factor.
Summers has apologized many times for the impact of his words, and he spoke later about the large impact of discrimination. But he has not totally repudiated the substance of his original remarks, which Barres finds galling.
Barres said he began to ask male scientists -- friends and colleagues -- what they thought of Summers's remarks. ``I was shocked by how many of them agreed," he said. ``I've had people say to me, `There's a reason these stereotypes exist.' "
Barres acknowledges that ``anecdotes . . . are not data," so in Nature he also highlights a number of studies that point to gender bias.
But Pinker, a psychology professor and author of ``The Blank Slate," said that Barres's review of scientific studies is one-sided and that it is irresponsible of Barres to lean so heavily on his own idiosyncratic experience. Pinker called ``a simple lie" Barres's suggestion that those who write about gender differences are ``suggesting that a whole group of people is innately wired to fail."
Pinker said studies indicate that women are better at some tasks and men are better at others, and that a wider variation in male abilities, at both the low and high end, may make for more top male scientists.
But he said he is not saying that any woman is wired to fail. ``It seems to me he's suggesting scientists should not look at the facts and should just look at what hurts Ben Barres's feelings," Pinker said.
Mansfield complained that Barres vastly oversimplified views on gender differences the Harvard government professor expressed in his recent book, ``Manliness."
Barres said his activism has only begun. He wants to start a foundation to raise money for day-care support for talented young female scientists. He was one of a number of critics who convinced the National Institutes of Health that the review process for a new award was biased against women, according to an NIH official. And Barres is campaigning for changes to avoid bias in a major award given by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute .
Most importantly, he wants to prod women out of their denial, arguing that they could do more to further their own careers if the spoke out more as a group.
Jennifer L. Raymond, the only woman in Barres's department at Stanford, said he has inspired her to reflect more on her past experiences.
``There are not many controlled experiments like [Barres's career] where people have been on both sides," she said. ``Women can internalize things and say `it's me,' but he can show it's not. His efforts have made me think more about sexism than I ever had before."
Bombardieri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company.
US: Transgender professor Ben Barres defends female scientists