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Old 07-13-2006, 08:53 AM   #1
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Transgendered Neuroscientist Saw Gender Bias Firsthand

Fascinating

"Your boyfriend must have solved it for you"-have attitudes such as this truly changed all that much? Not at Harvard or MIT, one could conclude. Perhaps some men reduce anecdotal experience to being nothing more than "Oprahlike" and "fruitcake" because they have never had to live through it. We all know science is so much easier to deal with. I just have to laugh at people who think everything in this world exists solely on an intellectual level and can so casually dismiss and insult the personal experiences of human beings. Imagine what it's like to be brilliant and have that all taken away from you by a comment such as "your bf must have solved it for you".

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."
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Old 07-13-2006, 10:33 AM   #2
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Thank you very much Mrs.S. I’m afraid that you have unwittingly hit upon one the few subjects that can turn me white-hot with rage.

I had that edition of Nature laying on my (woefully overcrowded) desk when I read your post so I grabbed it and read the commentary by Dr. Barres. I literally had to go outside and walk a couple of times around the building before I could formulate a halfway coherent answer so intense was my rage at this latest example of utterly moronic and deeply insulting sexism. I wholly support the opinion of Dr. Barres. I you have access to Nature I can highly recommend his piece. If not, let me know and I’ll post it here (it’s very long).

I have known too many brilliant female scientist to leave their fields of study despite being enormously gifted and possessed by the inquisitiveness and eagerness of spirit that characterise great scientific minds. Why? I’ve taken to privately asking junior scientist who leave our department unexpectedly about their reasons and the predominant answer from women is that they have lost their enthusiasm – more often than not because they’ve run into too many sexist remarks and too many insults to their considerable intelligence.

I’ll give a few examples of my own experiences: I originally studied physics and ended up in a class with only a handful of female students. One ill-fated semester I studied under a male professor (oddly enough a MIT-graduate) who would start each lecture by firing off two or three heavily sexist jokes. I never thought that they were funny but the majority of the class howled with laughter. I left physics behind later that year but I never lost the love for the field and later wandered in a side-door to biophysics. I pains me sometimes that I must now consider my former professor (the utter bastard) an esteemed and valued colleague – especially since he pushed me towards leaving a field of study that I genuinely enjoyed.

I’ve often spoken to male colleagues at conferences only to find that their eyes never seem to leave their position of constantly hovering some 20 centimetres below my face. I can’t describe how violated I feel when it happens. I strongly suspect that there are other women with similar experiences from the noble world of science here on Interference – what are your opinions?
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Old 07-13-2006, 10:34 AM   #3
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nevermind
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Old 07-13-2006, 11:00 AM   #4
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Extending it out beyond science and relying here on personal anecdotal experience only, I cannot tell you how many times I've had what I said disregarded, but when a man offered the exact same suggestion or analysis, it received attention.

Used to make me angry. I stopped fighting it. Now if I figure I'm not going to get credit for the suggestion at work or other germane situations when credit matters, I just keep the suggestion to myself.
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Old 07-13-2006, 11:54 AM   #5
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Quote:
Originally posted by BonosSaint
Extending it out beyond science and relying here on personal anecdotal experience only, I cannot tell you how many times I've had what I said disregarded, but when a man offered the exact same suggestion or analysis, it received attention.
Now that would never happen elsewhere, say in FYM for one example? Right?

Thanks for your comments silja, I find that infuriating and I feel so sad for those women and for you that you are insulted like that. It's a true shame, but I also applaud you for your fortitude
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Old 07-13-2006, 12:12 PM   #6
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I absolutely cannot imagine that happening in FYM.
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Old 07-13-2006, 12:24 PM   #7
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The first day at the Graphic Design School, a male teacher said something like "girls are very responsable when they make their projects, but guys are the ones with the creativity" I couldn't believe what I was hearing.

I got nominated to receive a design award this year, with other three male students of my faculty. all of them were mentioned in the faculty's journal, but my name wasn't there .

And I must admit that I'm affraid of that "your bf must have solved it for you" phrase because I date a recognized illustrator and I've never mentioned that before editors and other designers because some of them may think that my bf helps me to get certain jobs or even worse he helps me to do my illustrations.
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Old 07-13-2006, 01:08 PM   #8
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Very interesting.

I recently took my car in for a problem and asked to see the part they said needed to be replaced. It was then given to me in a bag and I was told I could take it home and show it to my husband (who doesn't exist).
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Old 07-13-2006, 02:13 PM   #9
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Re: Transgendered Neuroscientist Saw Gender Bias Firsthand

Quote:
Originally posted by MrsSpringsteen
"Your boyfriend must have solved it for you"-have attitudes such as this truly changed all that much?
Speaking anecdotally from my own experience seeing more and more women entering and succeeding in male dominated fields such as engineering and pharmaceuticals, for the most part I think attitudes have come a long way since then. But that doesn't mean there aren't still dinasours lurking and really still a long way to go.

Personally I'm in a female dominated profession that has long struggled for credibility in the corporate world but I have been part of creating and riding the wave of huge change in that respect.

I could choose to be galled and sensitive to outright male sexism when I see or experience it (just an FYI, I was on the campus of University of Montreal the night 27 women were targeted and shot - 14 to death - in the engineering building) but these days female-to-female sexism is what I find more troubling and counterproductive.
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Old 07-13-2006, 02:38 PM   #10
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^ It's always a pleasure when women are devalued by women in the workplace.
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Old 07-13-2006, 02:47 PM   #11
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Quote:
Originally posted by Muggsy
The first day at the Graphic Design School, a male teacher said something like "girls are very responsable when they make their projects, but guys are the ones with the creativity" I couldn't believe what I was hearing.

I got nominated to receive a design award this year, with other three male students of my faculty. all of them were mentioned in the faculty's journal, but my name wasn't there .

And I must admit that I'm affraid of that "your bf must have solved it for you" phrase because I date a recognized illustrator and I've never mentioned that before editors and other designers because some of them may think that my bf helps me to get certain jobs or even worse he helps me to do my illustrations.
It does make you wonder if it's based on some sort of notion that women are weak and should be helped.

Despite the tone of my previous post I actually don't think that men are sexist as a rule. I have met maybe four or five truly misogynist pigs in my life. It’s the silly remarks that slip out sometimes, it’s the ‘don’t bother your pretty little head with that’ attempts at misguided chivalry, it’s the presupposed gender-roles that irk me – even though I know that there’s no ill will. Of course it must be confusing as hell for men as well: When are you supposed to be a gentleman and hold the door and when will it get you your head ripped off? However, all these little things sticks somewhere at the back of your mind and when someone comes along and says outright ‘oh, but you are inherently inferior to me because you are a woman’ there isn’t a lot of patience or strength left to take up the fight.
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Old 07-13-2006, 05:03 PM   #12
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Quote:
Originally posted by BonosSaint
I absolutely cannot imagine that happening in FYM.


Looks like no one noticed that I said that There's never much of a male response to threads like this, threads about so called "womens' issues" which I think should be considered mens' issues as well. Abortion always gets lots o'responses though.

Maybe we should start a womens' corner in FYM Seriously, it can be frustrating sometimes.
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Old 07-13-2006, 05:06 PM   #13
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Quote:
Originally posted by silja

Despite the tone of my previous post I actually don't think that men are sexist as a rule. I have met maybe four or five truly misogynist pigs in my life. It’s the silly remarks that slip out sometimes, it’s the ‘don’t bother your pretty little head with that’ attempts at misguided chivalry, it’s the presupposed gender-roles that irk me – even though I know that there’s no ill will. Of course it must be confusing as hell for men as well: When are you supposed to be a gentleman and hold the door and when will it get you your head ripped off? However, all these little things sticks somewhere at the back of your mind and when someone comes along and says outright ‘oh, but you are inherently inferior to me because you are a woman’ there isn’t a lot of patience or strength left to take up the fight.
I agree with that, I would never say they are sexist as a rule either. It must be so painful though when you are so intelligent and working in a field such as science and you are subjected to constant disrespect and humiliation.
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Old 07-13-2006, 05:21 PM   #14
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but then again with tenure of the speaker he(she) could of delivered a better speech from her previous speech irrgardless of her/his new found chosen gender.

the speaker could have become more educated with the passage of time.

let's not be over-reactionaries always looking for an agenda.

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Old 07-13-2006, 05:32 PM   #15
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Quote:
Originally posted by diamond

let's not be over-reactionaries always looking for an agenda.
Is that what you think I am diamond? Perhaps I could say the same about so many posts and posters in FYM but I never would.

It's easy to say that when you are not a woman having to deal with sexism and especially a woman such as Ms Barres in a male dominated field-in which the men disrespect you in such an awful way.

How would you like it if you did something great at work and your boss said your wife must have done it for you? Just to name one example.

If you think women are over-reactionaries always looking for an agenda because they think this article raises important issues, then I strongly disagree with you. Maybe if you underwent a gender change and had to live as a woman and experience some of it, you might think differently
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