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Male Scientist Writes of Life as Female Scientist
Biologist Who Underwent Sex Change Describes Biases Against Women
By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 13, 2006; A10
Neurobiologist Ben Barres has a unique perspective on former Harvard president Lawrence Summers's assertion that innate differences between the sexes might explain why many fewer women than men reach the highest echelons of science.
That's because Barres used to be a woman himself.
In a highly unusual critique published yesterday, the Stanford University biologist -- who used to be Barbara -- said his experience as both a man and a woman had given him an intensely personal insight into the biases that make it harder for women to succeed in science.
After he underwent a sex change nine years ago at the age of 42, Barres recalled, another scientist who was unaware of it was heard to say, "Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but then his work is much better than his sister's."
And as a female undergraduate at MIT, Barres once solved a difficult math problem that stumped many male classmates, only to be told by a professor: "Your boyfriend must have solved it for you."
"By far," Barres wrote, "the main difference I have noticed is that people who don't know I am transgendered treat me with much more respect" than when he was a woman. "I can even complete a whole sentence without being interrupted by a man."
Barres said the switch had given him access to conversations that would have excluded him previously: "I had a conversation with a male surgeon and he told me he had never met a woman surgeon who was as good as a man."
Barres's salvo, bolstered with scientific studies, marks a dramatic twist in a controversy that began with Summers's suggestion last year that "intrinsic aptitude" may explain why there are relatively few tenured female scientists at Harvard. After a lengthy feud with the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Summers resigned earlier this year.
The episode triggered a fierce fight between those who say talk of intrinsic differences reflects sexism that has held women back and those who argue that political correctness is keeping scientists from frankly discussing the issue.
While there are men and women on both sides of the argument, the debate has exposed fissures along gender lines, which is what makes Barres so unusual. Barres said he has realized from personal experience that many men are unconscious of the privileges that come with being male, which leaves them unable to countenance talk of glass ceilings and discrimination.
Barres's commentary was published yesterday in the journal Nature. The scientist has also recently taken his argument to the highest reaches of American science, crusading to make access to prestigious awards more equitable.
In an interview, Nancy Andreasen, a well-known psychiatrist at the University of Iowa, agreed with Barres. She said it took her a long time to convince her husband that he got more respect when he approached an airline ticket counter than she did. When she stopped sending out research articles under her full name and used the initials N.C. Andreasen instead, she said, the acceptance rate of her publications soared.
Andreasen, one of the comparatively few women who have won the National Medal of Science, said she is still regularly reminded she is female. "Often, I will be standing in a group of men, and another person will come up and say hello to all the men and just will not see me, because in a professional setting, men are not programmed to see women," she said. "Finally, one of the men will say, 'I guess you haven't met Nancy Andreasen,' and then the person will turn bright red and say, 'Oh Nancy, nice to see you!' "
Summers did not respond to a request for an interview. But two scientists Barres lambasted along with Summers said the Stanford neurobiologist had misrepresented their views and unfairly tarred those who disagree with crude assertions of racism and sexism. Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker and Peter Lawrence, a biologist at Britain's Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, said convincing data show there are differences between men and women in a host of mental abilities.
While bias could be a factor in why there were fewer women at the pinnacles of science, both argued that this was not a primary factor.
Pinker, who said he is a feminist, said experiments have shown, on average, that women are better than men at mathematical calculation and verbal fluency, and that men are better at spatial visualization and mathematical reasoning. It is hardly surprising, he said, that in his own field of language development, the number of women outstrips men, while in mechanical engineering, there are far more men.
"Is it essential to women's progress that women be indistinguishable from men?" he asked. "It confuses the issue of fairness with sameness. Let's say the data shows sex differences. Does it become okay to discriminate against women? The moral issue of treating individuals fairly should be kept separate from the empirical issues."
Lawrence said it is a "utopian" idea that "one fine day, there will be an equal number of men and women in all jobs, including those in scientific research."
He said a range of cognitive differences could partly account for stark disparities, such as at his own institute, which has 56 male and six female scientists. But even as he played down the role of sexism, Lawrence said the "rat race" in science is skewed in favor of pushy, aggressive people -- most of whom, he said, happen to be men.
"We should try and look for the qualities we actually need," he said. "I believe if we did, that we would choose more women and more gentle men. It is gentle people of all sorts who are discriminated against in our struggle to survive."
Barres and Elizabeth Spelke, a Harvard psychologist who has publicly debated Pinker on the issue, say they have little trouble with the idea that there are differences between the sexes, although some differences, especially among children, involve biases among adults in interpreting the same behavior in boys and girls.
And both argue it is difficult to tease apart nature from nurture. "Does anyone doubt if you study harder you will do better on a test?" Barres asked. "The mere existence of an IQ difference does not say it is innate. . . . Why do Asian girls do better on math tests than American boys? No one thinks they are innately better."
In her debate with Pinker last year, Spelke said arguments about innate differences as explanations for disparities become absurd if applied to previous eras. "You won't see a Chinese face or an Indian face in 19th-century science," she said. "It would have been tempting to apply this same pattern of statistical reasoning and say, there must be something about European genes that give rise to greater mathematical talent than Asian genes."
"I think we want to step back and ask, why is it that almost all Nobel Prize winners are men today?" she concluded. "The answer to that question may be the same reason why all the great scientists in Florence were Christian."
Source: Stanford University Medical Center
Posted: July 14, 2006
Transgender Experience Led Stanford Scientist To Critique Gender Difference
Ben Barres has a distinct edge over the many others who have joined the debate about whether men’s brains are innately better suited for science than women’s. He doesn’t just make an abstract argument about the similarities and differences between the genders; he has lived as both.
Barres’ experience as a female-to-male transgendered person led him to write a pointed commentary in the July 13 issue of Nature rebuking the comments of former Harvard University president Lawrence Summers that raised the possibility that the dearth of women in the upper levels of science is rooted in biology. Marshalling scientific evidence as well as drawing from personal experience, Barres maintained that, contrary to Summers’ remarks, the lack of women in the upper reaches of research has more to do with bias than aptitude.
“This is a street fight,” said Barres, MD, PhD, professor of neurobiology and of developmental biology and of neurology and neurological sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine, referring to the gang of male academics and pundits who have attacked women scientists critical of arguments about their alleged biological inferiority.
Where Summers sees innate differences, Barres sees discrimination. As a young woman—Barbara—he said he was discouraged from setting his sights on MIT, where he ended up receiving his bachelor’s degree. Once there, he was told that a boyfriend must have solved a hard math problem that he had answered and that had stumped most men in the class. After he began living as a man in 1997, Barres overheard another scientist say, “Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but his work is much better than his sister’s work.”
From Barres’ perspective the only thing that changed is his ability to cry. Other than the absence of tears, he feels exactly the same. His science is the same, his interests are the same and he feels the quality of his work is unchanged.
That he could be treated differently by people who think of him as a woman, as a man or as a transgendered person makes Barres angry. What’s worse is that some women don’t recognize that they are treated differently because, unlike him, they’ve never known anything else.
The irony, Barres said, is that those who argue in favor 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 percent of tenured faculty. The situation is similar for minorities.
Yet scientists of both sexes are ready to attribute the gap to a gender difference. “They don’t care what the data is,” Barres said. “That’s the meaning of prejudice.”
Blinded them with bias
Barres doesn’t think that scientists at the top of the ladder mean harm. In fact, quite the opposite. “I am certain that all of the proponents of the Larry Summers hypothesis are well-meaning and fair-minded people,” he wrote in his Nature commentary. Yet because we all grew up in a culture that holds men and women to different standards, people are blind to their inherent biases, Barres said.
In his commentary Barres points to 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.
Further evidence comes from Mahzarin Banaji, PhD, professor of psychology at Harvard. She and her colleagues have devised a test that forces people to quickly associate terms with genders. The results revealed that most people—men and women—are less likely to associate scientific words with women than with men.
Given these and other findings, Barres wondered how scientists could fail to admit that discrimination is a problem. He arrived at an answer: optimism. Most scientists want to believe that they are fair, he said, and for that reason overlook data indicating that they probably aren’t.
Unfortunately, this optimism prevents those at the top of the field from taking steps needed to eliminate a bias they don’t acknowledge. “I think people can’t change until they see there’s a problem,” he said.
Barres’ colleague Jennifer Raymond, PhD, assistant professor of neurobiology, said she’s grateful to Barres for speaking out. “Most people do think there is a level playing field despite all the data to the contrary,” she said.
Inequality in science bothers Barres for several reasons. First, as a minority, he’d like to see his science stand on its own. But Barres’ concerns go beyond his own advancement.
Pointing to his own large office, replete with comfortable furniture and a coffee table, Barres said, “I have everything I need.” As a tenured professor at Stanford, he’s not fighting for himself. “This is about my students,” he said. “I want them all to be successful.”
And he wants science to move forward, which means looking beyond the abilities of white men, who make up 8 percent of the world’s population. The odds that all of the world’s best scientists can be found in that small subset is, at best, small, he said.
With that in mind, Barres has been at the forefront of the fight to make science fairer for all genders and races. One focus is eliminating bias from grant applications, especially for the most lucrative grants where the stakes are highest.
Last year, Barres convinced the National Institutes of Health to change how it chooses talented young scientists to receive its Director’s Pioneer Award, worth $500,000 per year for five years. In 2004, the 64-person selection panel consisted of 60 men—all nine grants went to men. In 2005, the agency increased the number of women on the panel, and six of the 13 grants went to women. Barres said that he has now set his sights on challenging what he perceives as male bias in the lucrative Howard Hughes Investigator program, an elite scientific award that virtually guarantees long-term research funding.
In his commentary, Barres listed additional ideas for how to retain more women and minorities in science, above and beyond the standard cries to simply hire more women. He suggested that women scientists be judged by the quality of their science rather than the quantity, given that many of them still bear the brunt of child-care responsibilities. He proposed enacting more gender-balanced selection processes for grants and job searches, as was done with the Pioneer award. And he called on academic leaders to speak out when departments aren’t diverse.
Barres said that critics have dismissed women who complain of discrimination in science as being irrational and emotional, but he said that the opposite argument is easy to make. “I t is overwhelmingly men who commit violent crimes out of rage and anger,” he wrote. “If any one ever sees a women with road rage, they should write it up and send it to a medical journal.”
He continued, “I am tired of powerful people using their position to demean me just because I am different from them. ... I will certainly not sit around silently and endure them.”
Dismissing ‘Sexist Opinions’ About Women’s Place in Science