Transgendering science: mind the gap

Former President of Harvard, Lawrence Summers may – once again – need to eat his (in)famous words – that innate differences between men and women lead to fewer women than men in the top rung of scientists. This time, he may have to chew them fairly soundly. Because Ben Barres, a neurobiologist at Stanford, is uniquely placed to refute his argument: he used to be Barbara. In Shankar Vedantam’s piece on Barres in the Washington Post, he quotes Barres:

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.”

In another article on Barres (who published in Nature what is likely to become a highly debated piece), Amy Adams writes

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.”

Prejudice, to me, was my maths teacher not asking me to give a solution when I had my hand up with the boys… While I loved maths and science, I ended up losing all confidence in my ability to do undergraduate level studies in these fields; possibly one reason I did economics, thinking – highly mistakenly, as I found out later – that it would combine my love for the sciences with my passion for the arts. Like I told another maths professor, a few years later: ‘the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak’… but it’s not really the spirit, not only the flesh, it has quite a bit to do with innate prejudice. The socialisation that begins soon after we’re born and goes on ever after: between pink dresses and blue shirts, between dolls and machine guns, between (hard) science and (soft) arts [all puns intended]. Thank you, Ben Barres, for stating it as it is.

And as for you, Lawrence Summers, remember that infamous memo in 1991, saying that rich countries should dump industrial/toxic waste in poor countries? That was supposedly a satirical aside that your aide wrote and that you signed… yeah, right. Why anyone should ever have taken you seriously after that is beyond my comprehension.

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