Thursday, July 13, 2006

An explosive commentary on the status of women in science

When I was 14 years old, I had an unusually talented maths teacher. One day after school, I excitedly pointed him out to my mother. To my amazement, she looked at him with shock and said with disgust: "You never told me that he wasblack". I looked over at my teacher and, for the first time, realized that he was an African-American. I had somehow never noticed his skin colour before, only his spectacular teaching ability. I would like to think that my parents' sincere efforts to teach me prejudice were unsuccessful. I don't know why this lesson takes for some and not for others. But now that I am 51, as a female-to-male transgendered person, I still wonder about it, particularly when I hear male gym teachers telling young boys "not to be like girls" in that same deroga-tory tone.


Here are a few examples of bias from my own life as a young woman. As an undergrad at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), I was the only person in a large class of nearly all men to solve a hard maths problem, only to be told by the professor that my boyfriend must have solved it for me. I was not given any credit. I am still disappointed about the prestigious fellowship competition I later lost to a male contemporary when I was a PhD student, even though the Harvard dean who had read both applications assured me that my application was much stronger (I had published six high-impact papers whereas my male competitor had published only one). Shortly after I changed sex, a faculty member was heard to say "Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but then his work is much better than his sister's."

This explosive commentary in Nature by Ben Barres, a neurobiologist at Stanford, is going to be discussed quite widely. There will be a lot of spin on either side, but there's nothing like the original. Do read Ben Barres' very personal commentary; you will learn and understand a lot more about 'innate differences' (see another quote below) and 'discrimination' from just this one source than from the tons of spin-filled meta-commentary that's sure to follow.

The link is to Nature's website, and if it's pay-walled, take a look at this story [via].

In an accompanying piece (in a side bar, I think), this is what Barres says:

As a transgendered person, no one understands more deeply than I do that there are innate differences between men and women. I suspect that my transgendered identity was caused by fetal exposure to high doses of a testosterone-like drug. But there is no evidence that sexually dimorphic brain wiring is at all relevant to the abilities needed to be successful in a chosen academic career. I underwent intensive cognitive testing before and after starting testosterone treatment about 10 years ago. This showed that my spatial abilities have increased as a consequence of taking testosterone. Alas, it has been to no avail; I still get lost all the time when driving (although I am no longer willing to ask for directions). There was one innate difference that I was surprised to learn is apparently under direct control of testosterone in adults — the ability to cry easily, which I largely lost upon starting hormone treatment. Likewise, male-to-female transgendered individuals gain the ability to cry more readily. By far, the main difference that I have noticed is that 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.


  1. Anonymous said...

    This was very interesting. Thanks for pointing it out, I haven't got my hands on the print copy of this issue yet. :)

  2. Anonymous said...

    This was really soul touching.I was wondering if the emmotional struggle also pushes some one for the need of sex change!
    But it's amazing how human body works.Thanks for sharing this story.