What a transperson in science academia might tell you about sexism

You have to read this over at The Wall Street Journal:

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.”

Cross-posted at blue milk.



Categories: gender & feminism, Science

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7 replies

  1. Nice to see this Ben Barres article again! I wonder how it’s going for him now, 6 years further on?
    [websearch]
    I sse that he was appointed professor by Stanford in 2008 (not long after he made a cracker of a speech at Harvard about sexism in science) and since then seems to have said little in public that’s not related directly to his research. I presume that means he doesn’t have tenure yet.

  2. This example also features in a book called the Hidden Brain, which was highly recommended to me by a good friend (another physicist) @bogurk, who has also written about her experiences in science.
    Hidden Brain is… uh… on my to-read list.

    I presume that means he doesn’t have tenure yet.

    I got coffee up my nose because of this, thanks 😛

  3. tigtog: his title is “Professor” rather than “Assistant Professor” (pre-tenure): “Associate Professor” is usually a tenured title in the US and “Professor” almost certainly is.
    He has some personal stories about transition, gender identity, dating and other aspects of his life at Web of Stories. It’s not totally clear when they were recorded, but the Youtube upload dates are from about a year ago.

    • Ah well, my snark-o-matic was probably set on a hair trigger with an overly broad target area. I should recalibrate a bit more often.

  4. Ben Barres’ story is becoming a classic in the trans community. It’s so powerful, not only as a human interest story but also as an illustration of how pervasive sexism (and transphobia) is in academia and the world at large.
    If you’re looking for trans women in science academia, you might want to check out Joan Roughgarden, an evolutionary biologist at Stanford University and author of “Evolution’s Rainbow”, where she reveals the prevalence of multiple genders and actual gender transition in nature. An interesting factoid is that Condoleeza Rice (whom I dislike intensely for her role in the W Bush regime) supported Roughgarden when Stanford wanted to get rid of her when she transitioned.

  5. Yes, I first read the “Ben Barres’s work is much better than his sister’s” anecdote in Nature, way back when I had institutional access (sigh). As GallingGalla mentioned, it’s a classic already. All apologies to trans people, but those nine words confirm everything thought by a lot of (ex) cis women scientists.
    (And can I mention in passing how most scientific journals require paid (usually by one’s institution) access re-inforces sexism and homophobia in science because scientists affected by it are more likely not be affiliated with an institution.)

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