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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.
Page B - 1
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
2006.03.24 ： 平成18年２月定例会（第７日目） 本文
43 ◯岡田啓介君◯岡田啓介君 私は自由民主党を代表して、今議会に提案のありました議案及び請願について各常任委員長の報告どおり取り扱うことに同意し、ただいまから討論を行います。ただし、その理由は議案第２４号並びに２５号についてのみといたします。
Faiths in Jerusalem united over gay march
By RAVI NESSMAN, Associated Press Writer
Wed Jul 12, 4:58 AM ET
Christian leaders condemned it. Jewish radicals put a bounty on participants. Muslim clerics threatened to flood the streets with protesters. Jerusalem's conflicting religions have found rare common ground: opposition to an international gay pride parade next month.
"We consider this offensive and harmful to the religious integrity of the city," said Sheik Taissir Tamimi, head of the Islamic court in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
"This group of homosexuals, we consider them impure," he said, calling on Palestinians to take to the streets to prevent marchers from entering east Jerusalem, where the holy sites are located. They "must not be allowed to enter Jerusalem."
The march is the centerpiece of the seven-day WorldPride festival, intended to bring people of different faiths and cultures to a strife-torn city in an example of peaceful coexistence, said Hagai Elad, executive director of the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance, which is organizing the event.
It also makes the statement that gays have as much right to the holy city's heritage as anyone else, he said.
"People on the one hand talk about the holiness of Jerusalem and at the same time are speaking in unacceptable ways against the dignity of other human beings," he added. "How that contributes to the holiness of Jerusalem is something that I don't understand."
A previous WorldPride festival was held in another holy city — Rome — in 2000. This year's event is expected to draw 20,000 people from around the world starting Aug. 6. It includes a Youth Day, arts and cultural exhibits, and a conference by religious leaders — nearly all of them from abroad — who support the gay community.
But local leaders in this deeply conservative city are pushing to have the gathering canceled.
Rabbi Shlomo Amar, one of Israel's two chief rabbis, wrote a letter to Pope Benedict XVI, urging him to issue a "strong, emotional, unequivocal statement against this terrible phenomenon."
"The evil are coming upon (Jerusalem) to desecrate its honor and to humiliate its glory with acts that the Torah despises and that are despised by all the religions," Amar wrote. "In addition, they also want to negatively influence babies, children and teenagers, to ruin them and bring them down the path of destruction."
The ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism Party has submitted a no-confidence motion against the government over the parade, accusing authorities of not doing enough to stop it.
Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski, himself an ultra-Orthodox Jew, has called for the parade's cancellation, but his office said Tuesday he had no authority to take such action. The police, who are responsible for authorizing parades, said they had not decided whether to grant a permit.
The festival was originally scheduled for last summer, but organizers delayed it out of sensitivity for Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Thousands marched in a local gay pride parade instead, weathering insults from protesters and a stabbing attack by an ultra-Orthodox Jew that wounded three people.
The threat of violence has resurfaced this year. An anonymous flyer distributed in some ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods Tuesday offered about $4,400 to anyone who killed a marcher.
Three Christian Zionist groups based in Jerusalem issued a joint statement condemning the march, saying its choice of venue was intended to spur conflict.
"It's provocative, confrontational and it's a PR move. It's a gimmick," said David Parsons, spokesman for the International Christian Embassy, an Evangelical group that signed the statement. "It exploits what Jerusalem means to us. I don't think it means anything to the gay and lesbian community."
Archbishop Aristarchous, of the Greek Orthodox church, took a softer line, calling on "the sanctity of Jerusalem to be respected by them, and by everybody."
Wadiya Abu Nasr, a former Catholic Church official here and a commentator on Christianity, said he believed the gay community had the right to march, but suggested the secular city of Tel Aviv, which is much friendlier to the gay community, would be a better place to do it.
"One has to be not only just, but to be wise and not to be provocative. There are other places they could express themselves without directly offending anybody," he said.
Elad said marching in Tel Aviv would detract from the event's significance.
"Tel Aviv is a wonderful city, but Tel Aviv does not carry the international symbolism that Jerusalem does. There is only one Jerusalem," he said.
The proposed route would take the marchers from Independence Park in west Jerusalem toward the Israeli parliament, keeping them miles away from the Old City, which holds the Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, three of the city's holiest sites.
Uzi Even, an openly gay former lawmaker from the dovish Meretz Party, said the organizers needed to be careful to stay away from those sites, but the parade should proceed because it carries important symbolic value.
"That is why the religious people are so much against it," he said. It shows "that we are here, that we cannot be silenced, that we don't want to hide in the closet anymore, that we demand our rights, even from the religious parties."
The Wall Street Journal
He, Once a She, Offers Own View On Science Spat
By SHARON BEGLEY
July 13, 2006; Page B1
Ben Barres had just finished giving a seminar at the prestigious
Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research 10 years ago, describing to scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard and other top institutions his discoveries about nerve cells called glia. As the applause died down, a friend later told him, one scientist turned to another and remarked what a great seminar it had been, adding, "Ben Barres's work is much better than his sister's."
There was only one problem. Prof. Barres, then as now a professor of neurobiology at Stanford University, doesn't have a sister in science. The Barbara Barres the man remembered was Ben.
Prof. Barres is transgendered, having completed the treatments that made him fully male 10 years ago. The Whitehead talk was his first as a man, so the research he was presenting was done as Barbara.
Being first a female scientist and then a male scientist has given Prof. Barres a unique perspective on the debate over why women are so rare at the highest levels of academic science and math: He has experienced personally how each is treated by colleagues, mentors and rivals.
Based on those experiences, as well as research on gender differences, Prof. Barres begs to differ with what he calls "the Larry Summers Hypothesis," named for the former Harvard president who attributed the paucity of top women scientists to lack of "intrinsic aptitude." In a commentary in today's issue of the journal Nature, he writes that "the reason women are not advancing [in science] is discrimination" and the "Summers Hypothesis amounts to nothing more than blaming the victim."
In his remarks at an economics conference in January 2005, Mr. Summers said "socialization" is probably a trivial reason for the low number of top female mathematicians and scientists. But Prof. Barres, who as Barbara received the subtle and not-so-subtle hints that steer smart girls away from science, doesn't see it that way. The top science and math student in her New Jersey high school, she was advised by her guidance counselor to go to a local college rather than apply to MIT. She applied anyway and was admitted.
As an MIT undergraduate, Barbara was one of the only women in a large math class, and the only student to solve a particularly tough problem. The professor "told me my boyfriend must have solved it for me," recalls Prof. Barres, 51 years old, in an interview. "If boys were raised to feel that they can't be good at mathematics, there would be very few who were."
Although Barbara Barres was a top student at MIT, "nearly every lab head I asked refused to let me do my thesis research" with him, Prof. Barres says. "Most of my male friends had their first choice of labs. And I am still disappointed about the prestigious fellowship I lost to a male student when I was a Ph.D. student," even though the rival had published one prominent paper and she had six.
As a neuroscientist, Prof. Barres is also skeptical of the claim that differences between male and female brains might explain the preponderance of men in math and science. For one thing, he says, the studies don't adequately address whether those differences are innate and thus present from birth, or reflect the different experiences that men and women have. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, who defends the Summers Hypothesis, acknowledges that the existence of gender differences in values, preferences and aptitudes "does not mean that they are innate."
The biggest recent revolution in neuroscience has been the discovery of the brain's "plasticity," or ability to change structure and function in response to experiences. "It's not hard to believe that differences between the brains of male and female adults have nothing to do with genes or the Y chromosome but may be the biological expression of different social settings," says biologist Joan Roughgarden of Stanford, who completed her own transgender transition in 1998.
Jonathan Roughgarden's colleagues and rivals took his intelligence for granted, Joan says. But Joan has had "to establish competence to an extent that men never have to. They're assumed to be competent until proven otherwise, whereas a woman is assumed to be incompetent until she proves otherwise. I remember going on a drive with a man. He assumed I couldn't read a map."
Actually, Ben Barres says there may be something to the stereotype that men are better map readers. The testosterone he received to become male improved his spatial abilities, he writes in Nature, though "I still get lost every time I drive."
Still, there is little evidence that lack of testosterone or anything unique to male biology is the main factor keeping women from the top ranks of science and math, says Prof. Barres, a view that is widely held among scientists who study the issue. Although more men than women in the U.S. score in the stratosphere on math tests, there is no such difference in Japan, and in Iceland the situation is flipped, with more women than men scoring at the very top.
"That seems more like 'socialization' than any difference in innate abilities to me," geneticist Gregory Petsko of Brandeis University wrote last year. In any case, except in a few specialized fields like theoretical physics, there is little correlation between math scores and who becomes a scientist.
Some supporters of the Summers Hypothesis suggest that temperament, not ability, holds women back in science: They are innately less competitive. Prof. Barres's experience suggests that if women are less competitive, it is not because of anything innate but because that trait has been beaten out of them.
"Female scientists who are competitive or assertive are generally ostracized by their male colleagues," he says. In any case, he argues, "an aggressive competitive spirit" matters less to scientific success than curiosity, perseverance and self-confidence.
Women doubt their abilities more than men do, say scientists who have mentored scores of each. "Almost without exception, the talented women I have known have believed they had less ability than they actually had," Prof. Petsko wrote. "And almost without exception, the talented men I have known believed they had more."
Which may account for what Prof. Barres calls the main difference he has noticed since changing sex. "People who do not know I am transgendered treat me with much more respect," he says. "I can even complete a whole sentence without being interrupted by a man."
Write to Sharon Begley at email@example.com
Transgender prof defends female scientists
By LISA LEFF, Associated Press Writer
Wednesday, July 12, 2006
As an Ivy League-trained neurobiologist who oversees a research lab at Stanford, Ben Barres feels qualified to comment on whether nature or nurture explains the persistent gender gap in the scientific community.
But it wasn't just his medical degree from Dartmouth, his Ph.D from Harvard and his studies on brain development and regeneration that inspired him to write an article blaming the shortage of female scientists on institutional bias.
Rather, it was that for most of his academic life, the 51-year-old professor who now wears a beard was once known as Dr. Barbara Barres, a woman who excelled in math and science.
"I have this perspective," said Barres, who switched sexes when he started taking hormones in 1997. "I've lived in the shoes of a woman and I've lived in the shoes of a man. It's caused me to reflect on the barriers women face."
Barres' opinion piece, published in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature, was a response to the debate former Harvard president Lawrence Summers reignited last year when he said innate sexual differences might explain why comparatively few women excelled in scientific careers.
Summers' clashes with faculty — including over women in science — led to his resignation, though not before he committed $50 million on childcare and other initiatives to help advance the careers of women and minority employees.
Even so, Barres thinks a meaningful discussion of what he calls the "Larry Summers Hypothesis" ended too soon, leaving missed opportunities and a bad message for young female scientists.
"I feel like I have a responsibility to speak out," he said. "Anyone who has changed sex has done probably the hardest thing they can do. It's freeing, in a way, because it makes me more fearless about other things."
In his article, Barres offers several personal anecdotes from both sides of the gender divide to prove his own hypothesis that prejudice plays a much bigger role than genes in preventing women from reaching their potential on university campuses and in government laboratories.
The one that rankles him most dates from his undergraduate days at MIT, where as a young woman in a class dominated by men he was the only student to solve a complicated math problem. The professor responded that a boyfriend must have done the work for her, according to Barres.
Barres makes a point of saying that he never felt mistreated or held back as a female scientist. At the same time, he wonders if his personal experience somehow shielded him from the more insidious effects of gender bias.
"I wasn't subject to the same stereotype threat because I never identified with women when I was growing up," he said. "In a way that was one of the lucky things for me about being transgender."
Aside from his unique vantage point, the thrust of Barres' article is that neither Summers nor the prominent scientists who defended his position used hard data to back up the claim that biology makes women less inclined toward math and science.
He cites several studies — including one showing little difference in the math scores of boys and girls ages 4 to 18 and another that indicated girls are groomed to be less competitive in sports — to support his discrimination argument.
"If a famous scientist or the president of a prestigious university is going to pronounce in public that women are likely to be innately inferior, would it be too much to ask that they be aware of the relevant data?" he writes in Nature.
"It would seem just as the bar goes up for women applicants in academic selection processes, it goes way down when men are evaluating the evidence for why women are not advancing in science."
Harvard University psycholinguist Steven Pinker, whom Barres names in his commentary as a leading defender of Summers, already has written a letter to the editors of Nature criticizing the piece as "polemic" that "contains numerous falsehoods and scurrilous statements."
Pinker said both he and Summers relied on "a large empirical literature showing differences in mean and variance in the distributions of talents, temperaments, and life priorities" among men and women to explain why women might be underrepresented in some scientific disciplines.
"He should learn to take scientific hypotheses less personally," Pinker said.
Barres said he won't be surprised if the Nature article makes him the kind of lightning rod for criticism that Summers was last year. He said he is disappointed that more senior women faculty have remained silent on the issue.
"Women have heard this stuff so much from people like Larry Summers, some corner of their brain starts to believe it," he said.
On the Net:
Nature journal: http://www.nature.com
Transgendered Professor Stirs Debate Over Women in Science By E.J. Mundell
WEDNESDAY, July 12 (HealthDay News) -- When former Harvard University President Larry Summers voiced the opinion last year that women might be intellectually inferior to men when it comes to math and science, he touched off a nationwide firestorm of controversy.
Now, Stanford University professor of neurobiology Dr. Ben Barres is wading into the fray with an essay in this week's Nature, contending that women are just as scientifically inclined as men -- if given a level playing field and the chance to shine.
He should know: Ten years ago, as Barbara Barres, this M.D. and Ph.D. made the decision to undergo hormone therapy and begin living as a man.
In his provocative essay, Does Gender Matter?, Ben Barres contends that it does -- that the attitude of others in the sciences changed toward him soon after he made the switch.
"The main difference that I have noticed is that people who don't know that I am transgendered treat me with much more respect," he writes. "I can even complete a whole sentence without being interrupted by a man."
That fundamental lack of respect for women is what Barres, 51, believes drives the relatively low representation of females in the world of science -- not any innate genetic inability.
For many girls, these stereotypes and stigmas may keep them from pursuing a career they might love and excel in, according to Barres. "From an early age, girls receive the messages that they are not good enough to do science subjects or will be less liked if they are good at it," he writes. "The messages come from many sources, including parents, friends, fellow students and, alas, teachers."
As a young girl, and then as a young female college student and academic, Barres said he felt the sting of discrimination first hand. While an undergrad at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the female Barres was the only person in a class full of men to solve a particularly tough math problem. The professor remarked that Barbara's "boyfriend must have solved it for [her]." And as a grad student at Harvard, Barbara Barres was passed over for a prestigious fellowship in favor of a male applicant who had published just one-sixth as many scientific papers as she had.
Finally, Barres remembers that, "Shortly after I changed sex, a faculty member was heard to say, 'Ben Barres gave such a great seminar today, but then his work is much better than his sister's.' "
The essay resonated with Marianne LaFrance, a Yale professor of psychology and women's gender and sexuality studies. Her work has long focused on how being born male or female affects careers.
"The thing that's so terrific about this essay is precisely that he's a transgendered person," she said. LaFrance pointed out that Barbara and Ben Barres are exactly the same person -- in terms of their talent, creativity and intellect -- and yet Ben gets much more immediate respect from his peers than Barbara ever could.
"It raises lots of questions about just where is gender? It seems to be much more in the mind of the perceiver than it is in the person who's being perceived," LaFrance said.
But Larry Summers, too, quickly found allies within academia after his speech in January 2005. A Harvard colleague, Professor Harvey Mansfield, published a book titled Manliness, in which he contended that women naturally shy away from competition and are risk-averse and overly emotional, compared to men. And British molecular biologist Peter Lawrence also penned a widely read essay in which he claimed that, even in a perfect world, women's innate deficiencies in scientific aptitude would leave them trailing men.
But Barres, who is also professor of developmental biology, neurology and neurological sciences at Stanford, cited the data on the issue. He noted that a study of math tests taken by nearly 20,000 American children aged 4 to 18 showed nearly identical scores by gender.
"And despite all the social forces that hold women back from an early age, still one-third of the winners of the elite Putnam Math Competition last year were women," Barres said.
LaFrance agreed. "Most of the evidence that we have suggests very strongly that the differences between men and women in most things are pretty small, and if you provide men and women with the same educational opportunities, lo and behold, those differences all but disappear," she said.
She pointed out that these disparities have continued to shrink as society slowly becomes more open to the idea of female excellence in the sciences.
"Now, if we're seeing real changes like that, that suggests that [the differences] are not genetic, because we know that genetic changes don't occur in just a matter of decades," LaFrance said.
"It also suggests," LaFrance added, "that if you provide the opportunities and the support structure and various other kinds of arrangements that prohibit discrimination, then you're going to get good scientists who are men -- and good scientists who are women."
To learn more, visit the Association for Women in Science.
Nature Volume 442 Number 7099 ppxiii-222
Does gender matter? p133
The suggestion that women are not advancing in science because of innate inability is being taken seriously by some high-profile academics. Ben A. Barres explains what is wrong with the hypothesis.
Ben A. Barres
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