Switch Hitting: Part II

By JoAnne Hewett | July 18, 2006 2:37 pm

As Sean has just reported, Ben Barres, a tenured professor in neurobiology at Stanford, is speaking out about his experiences as a scientist. His story is an interesting one and, in my book at least, there’s enough material for a second post.

There has been much recent discussion on the cause of the dearth of women working in the sciences. One hypothesis is that there is a systemic bias against women in the system. Barres has performed the ultimate experiment to test this hypothesis by starting life and her career as female, undergoing a transgender process, and continuing life and his career as a male. Same person, same innate scientific abilities, with observations and experiences from both sides of the fence. One couldn’t ask for a better experiment in a controlled laboratory environment! The only systematic error introduced into the process is that scientific acceptance and recognition takes time to establish and can come more easily to a more senior scientist. Provided, of course, that their early work was any good.

Barres has described his experiences in a recent Nature article (subscription required unfortunately), which has been picked up by a horde of newspapers. The summary is that doors and acceptance she never ever knew existed, suddenly opened up to Barres as a male. For some reason, I’m not surprised… I won’t be surprised either if the sun sets in the West tonight. Kudos to Barres for telling his story!

A main focus of the Nature article is a set of action items that Barres suggests to remedy the systemic bias and increase the number of women in the sciences. These are important and are the reason for this second post. They are:

1. Enhance leadership diversity in academic and scientific institutions.
2. Recognize the importance of role models and increase the diversity of faculties.
3. Take the responsibility to speak out against discrimination.
4. Boost the self-confidence of girls.

In my view, this is a great list! Each step is simple enough to inact and from my own experience I can say that they are somewhat lacking and would make a difference. They are not the only positive steps one can take, of course, but they are a good start. It’s time for institutions to tackle these 4 steps in a serious manner.

Lastly, I feel compelled to spout my personal opinion regarding the hypothesis that innate differences exist in the mathematical and scientific abilities between the female and male brains. (Restricting myself to family oriented language here) It is a complete, total, unadulterated, unmitigated, pile of crap. Some will undoubtedly cry out that I am being unscientific by refusing to test a proposed hypothesis. However, from my view, the hypothesis has already been tested and disproved. It’s been proven wrong by the number of successful women scientists working today. The number is not 50%, but in fact, is large enough to be statistically significant. Take a look at the accomplishments of the women who are stubborn enough to have pushed past the systemic bias – women such as Helen Quinn, Sally Dawson, Lisa Randall, Anne Nelson, Young Kee Kim, Vera Luth, Persis Drell, Risa Wechsler, Eva Silverstein, Nan Phinney, Helen Edwards, Elizabeth Simmons, Marcela Carena, Ritchie Patterson, Janet Conrad, Kay Kinoshita, Sau Lan Wu, Angela Olinto, Marjorie Shapiro, Mary Kay Gaillard, and hell, let’s include me too. This is just a random list of women scientists working in the US in HEP that I can think of at the moment, and yet they are all amongst the top in the field. If we are innately inferior, then how come so many of us do so well? What better set of data does one need?


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