TV & Radio
Posted on Sun, Jul. 16, 2006
SEEING THE WORLD FROM BOTH SIDES
By Yomi S. Wronge
San Jose Mercury News
When a Stanford University neurobiologist made a case this week that discrimination, not genetics, keeps women out of science, his comments carried more weight than usual.
Ben A. Barres spent most of his life -- and his career as an accomplished scientist -- as a woman. Only nine years ago did he complete the process of changing into a man; only recently, he says, did he begin to realize how bias holds women back.
``I definitely think experiences I've lived as a woman and now as a man have led me to feel very strongly about this,'' said Barres, 51, who has gotten calls from journalists across the United States and Europe and been asked to write a book since his commentary was published in the journal Nature.
And now that he's got the floor, Barres is ready to move the gender debate beyond words.
One idea: to give female scientists with young children $25,000 stipends for child care. Barres is talking about starting a foundation to do just that and wants to name it after Denice Denton, the former University of California-Santa Cruz chancellor, scientist and champion of women's rights who apparently committed suicide last month.
``She was one of these women who was a hero,'' Barres said, ``a pioneer for opening doors for women in science and engineering.''
Barres said he also wants to direct attention to bias in prestigious grant competitions and job searches, saying that women often have to go above and beyond to compete and too often are shut out.
Debate at Harvard
Barres wrote the article in response to the debate then-Harvard President Lawrence Summers ignited last year when he said that difference in ``intrinsic aptitude'' among men and women might explain why fewer women excel in scientific careers.
Barres grew up in West Orange, N.J., the daughter of a salesman and a homemaker. ``From the time I was 5 or 6 -- I don't know how I even knew what a scientist was -- I was playing with science toys and kits and got this idea that being a scientist was fun,'' he said.
He excelled at mathematics and attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. From there he went to medical school and received a doctorate at Harvard.
Although Barres said he never had a strong sense of being discriminated against as a woman, he recalls an experience at MIT in which he solved a complicated math problem but was told by a professor that ``my boyfriend must have solved it for me,'' he wrote in Nature.
And he still bristles at losing a fellowship at Harvard to a man who had published less work and later dropped out of science.
``Women and minorities are being indoctrinated from a very young age that they are less good,'' Barres said.
But those slights are not the reason he made the transition from female to male, he said: ``I changed sex because of a very deep sense of gender dissonance I had as a small child, and the second I realized I was transgender and could change sex, I did it instantly.''
That was nine years ago. Barres had already achieved tenure at Stanford and therefore said he has nothing to gain or lose by speaking out about the bias he still sees.
In his commentary, Barres cites several studies showing little difference in mathematical ability between the sexes.
Yet women comprise only about 26 percent of the country's employed science and engineering doctorate holders, according to a 2001 survey by the National Science Foundation.
In four-year colleges and universities, the foundation found that men were more likely than women to hold high-ranking faculty positions. Women are also more likely to be assistant professors than full professors.
``We can teach young scientists how to survive in a prejudiced world,'' Barres wrote in Nature, adding that he and other senior scientists are in a position to do that.
Beth Stevens, a post-doctoral student in Barres' lab at Stanford, said he has taught her how to prepare for a career in academia and stay one step ahead in a highly competitive field.
When she looks for a permanent job over the next year, the 36-year-old who wants to one day be a mom said she will take note of the number of women who are already on the faculty.
If there are only one or two, she said. ``I think it would be a little bit discouraging. That would be a red flag for me.''
Barres said he believes that work-life balance is a major factor holding women back.
``A day in the life of a young female assistant professor with children here would kill the average man,'' he said.
He points to Jennifer Raymond, an assistant professor of neurobiology at Stanford. She's the only woman in her department, mother of a 2-year-old daughter and expecting her second child. Between running her lab, writing grants and juggling family, Raymond said, she is pushed to the limit and starting to notice the difference between herself and her male colleagues. She said even men with children don't bear the same child care responsibilities she does.
Still, falling behind is not an option.
`I'd rather play'
``If the choice is to play on a playing field that's not level or don't play, I'd rather play,'' said Raymond, 40. ``Having children really makes a big difference. Then it's playing on an uneven playing field with one hand tied behind my back.''
That there are such serious barriers for women scientists should not come as a shock, said Nancy Hopkins, a biology professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who has spent the past decade studying gender bias in science.
One challenge she sees is getting women to acknowledge that bias exists.
``It took me 20 years to realize the things that were making my life really hard were discrimination,'' she said.
When people hold the view that women are innately less able than men ``it undervalues your work,'' she said.
Barres, she said, is in a unique position to affect change.
``This problem stagnates, lurches forward, stagnates. But I think he's going to have big impact. He's a real pioneer,'' Hopkins said. ``Until we can get men to join with women on this issue, we can't win. There aren't enough of us.''
Mercury News Staff Writer Kendra Marr contributed to this report. Contact Yomi S. Wronge at firstname.lastname@example.org or (408) 920-5744.
Neuroscientist, once a woman, says he saw gender bias firsthand