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 [1] 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.

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.

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

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Cross-posted at nanopolitan, my main blog.

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