By Sean Carroll | July 18, 2006 8:32 am

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.

That’s the opening of this Wall Street Journal article about Ben Barres, a neurologist at Stanford who has been written about by just about everybody over the last week (including Arun in comments here). Not about his neurology research in this case, but about an article he wrote for Nature (subscription required) about his experiences as a transgendered scientist. Barres underwent treatments about ten years ago to go from being female to male, so he has a unique perspective on the different ways that male and female scientists are treated. Not completely unique, of course; the WSJ article also quotes Joan Roughgarden, also at Stanford, who was “Jonathan” up until 1998:

Jonathan Roughgarden’s colleagues and rivals took his intelligence for granted, Joan says. But Joan has had “to establish competence to an extent that men never have to. They’re assumed to be competent until proven otherwise, whereas a woman is assumed to be incompetent until she proves otherwise. I remember going on a drive with a man. He assumed I couldn’t read a map.”

They seem to be implying that women face obstacles in the world of science that men do not. In other news, the Sun rose in the East this morning.

Today’s New York Times has an interview with Barres by Cornelia Dean. They get right down to it:

Q. What’s your response to people who say you rely too much on your own experience and should take scientific hypotheses less personally?

A. They should learn that scientific hypotheses require evidence. The bulk of my commentary discusses the actual peer-reviewed data.

That’s not fair! Barres needs to understand that phrases like “scientific hypotheses require evidence” are only to be used by people who believe that the differences between men and women can be traced to variations in innate qualities. The mountains of data pointing to systematic biases are to be ignored.

So who are these unnamed people who think that Barres “should take scientific hypotheses less personally?” That sounds suspiciously like a straw man — most careful scientists would be reluctant to stoop so directly to an ad hominem attack, rather than dealing with the aforementioned mountains of data. Sadly, it’s a direct quote from our old friend Steven Pinker, himself a master of the straw-man technique.

Professor Pinker, if you are reading this, you are a brilliant thinker and an extraordinary writer and lecturer. The Language Instinct was one of the all-time classic books on science for a wide audience. Please do not work to make your public profile identified primarily with the claim that innate differences in capacity are more important than systematic biases in keeping women out of science. It is not only wrong, but wrong in a particularly damaging way.

One more time, to be as clear as possible, so that nobody reading in good faith can possibly misunderstand. I (and most people who harp on this) am not objecting to the hypothesis that there are innate differences in how male and female minds work, nor am I discouraging research on the subject. It’s an hypothesis, it should be tested, knock yourself out. Okay? It’s just not the question that is being talked about here. The questions “Why are there fewer women in science?” and “What are the innate differences in mental abilities and inclinations between boys and girls?” are just not the same. They may be related, obviously, but they are just not the same. And while the latter question is subtle and extremely hard to answer at the current state of the art, due to the extraordinary difficulty in separating out what is “innate” from what is influenced by the outside world, the answer to the former question is blindingly obvious to anyone who cares to open their eyes. Do you really need Ben Barres or Joan Roughgarden to tell you that men and women are treated differently as scientists? Read the Xie and Shauman book. Read Meg Urry’s article. Just look at what goes on around you. And don’t take reality so personally.

Update: via Crooked Timber, some interesting stories at Science + Professor + Woman = Me. For example, a question asked by a professor to a female grad student:

Q. So you’re doing a Ph.D.? Couldn’t you find anyone to marry you?

Of course, they are only anecdotes, so you should feel free to pretend that this stuff almost never happens, if that makes you feel better.

  • loonunit

    If you collect enough people’s personal experiences, you may eventually arrive a statistically significant sample. And if they all exhibit a commonality of complaints, it may behoove the relevant parties to take those complaints seriously, being as there may be a statistically signficant, quantifiable phenemenon underlying those complaints, systematically skewing the signals that Dr. Pinker is trying to measure. Having quantified and studied these phenomena, there may even be ways of removing the systematic bias, such that Dr. Pinker can finally do his experiment in a properly bias-free environment.

    In other news, the Sun, having risen, will most likely set in the evening.

  • http://sourav.net/ sourav

    Until it is generally accepted that men are willing to stay home and raise the kids, women in science who wish to have a family life will be at a disadvantage. This might not be fair: particularly talented women may contribute significantly to the field even if they take more time off than the average male colleague who has kids; or, they might find a way to not take more time off than their male child-bearing counterparts. Nevertheless, the perception will be there.

    Part of the problem is physics culture. While I don’t see it in my graduate school peers, I’ve noticed hints of alpha-male-wannabe competitiveness and sexual/emotional immaturity in older faculty. Even though many more men are willing to be “house-husbands,” or at least compromise more on their own careers, older male faculty in positions of power may scoff at the notion and persist in their skepticism of women.

    I am neither a faculty member nor a woman, so perhaps others in one or both groups would offer their comments on these points.

  • http://www.chrononaut.org/~dm/ David Moles

    Until it is generally accepted that men are willing to stay home and raise the kids, women in science who wish to have a family life will be at a disadvantage.

    Yeah, and until it’s generally accepted that not all women want to do that, women in science who don’t wish to have a family life will still be at a disadvantage.

    (And until it’s generally accepted that having any sort of life outside your discipline whatsoever is not a sign of insufficient commitment, well-rounded people of all genders will be at a disadvantage…)

  • loonunit

    The point I was trying to make was that there’s plenty of things institutions can do now to a.) diagnose the presence of systematic biases among students and faculty and b.) take measures to counteract/mitigate those effects. Which, as JoAnne points out, is something Dr. Barres has already taken pains to mention.

    Re: childcare, for example… there’s plenty of easy ground that can be covered there. Most universities DO NOT provide access to adequate childcare facilities, and most tenure-track programs heavily penalize persons who need to take time off for family reasons. Even if those penalties are more cultural than intrinsically institutional… they need to be diagnosed and dealt with.

    I won’t comment on emotional/sexual immaturity. But I will speak from my own experience and comment that in my environment alpha-male competitiveness is not subtle — it’s the rule of the land. Anyone who is cowed by that attitude is eventually taken aside to have it suggested that “perhaps they’re not really the right personality for science?” And I know plenty of senior faculty women who are more alpha-male than even the local alpha-males… rumor has it, the two women on this year’s graduate admissions committee put an a spectacular display of unprofessionalism by getting into a shouting match in the middle of a meeting, with each one trying to talk over the other. This kind of posture actually hurts them in the long run; at their level it’s usually more important to be perceived as “getting along well with others” than as “tougher than the boys.”

    And David, I know you probably meant this anyway, but… there needs to be room in academia for both choices. Because even in this modern era, the expectation is that a PhD woman has to CHOOSE — she can either have children now and abandon her career… or go with her career, and maybe not have children at all. And while I know a few crazy mo-fos (can you call a woman a mo-fo?) who have pulled off both, those are very much the 1-in-20 alpha-male women. The same women who take other women aside to suggest that maybe they’re not cut out for academia after all? I know a heck of a lot more women who have dropped out of academia because they don’t feel there’s room in the tenure-track system for them to take care of their families… and one or two of my early female role-models have actually been caught in recent years referring to parents in academia as “Breeders.”

    There needs to be room for both. Otherwise we end up with tokenism — one or two women for every 20 men — and alpha-male-female mentors with giant chips on their shoulders, hurting both themselves and the junior students who can’t look to them as role models.

  • http://sourav.net/ sourav


    Leaving aside the question of subjective gender bias (even unintentional; see Swedish study from other thread), what is to be done about the hypercompetitive culture that some departments have?

    My impression is that it arose from the male-dominated post-WWII era, when physics was the “place to be;” with the GI bill and gov’t grants paying salaries academics could draw from all economic classes. Men didn’t have many family responsibilities since they could afford to support their families on just their own salaries (even in places like Boston and Bay Area), and women were generally expected to stay home and do childcare and homemaking. The men could then spend day and night at the lab, and a quasi-meritocracy arose based solely on scholarly productivity.

    Things are different now. I think men who want to “breed” can still afford to be gung-ho — they just delay marriage until they get tenure. Women, unfortunately, have a biological clock and need time off for birth. I see a few options (again, assuming there is not subjective gender bias):

    * Devise some calculus for judging the absolute productivity of a post-doc/asst. prof. (which is ideally what is supposed to be done now), and consider family-life a personal choice, at a career cost

    * Recognize childrearing as a necessity of life, and judge women (and men who want to take time off) by their time while actually working, rather than total productivity while being a post-doc/asst. prof.

    * Recognize family life as a merit good, and not only judge by productivity while actually at work, but stop the tenure clock and even provide childcare

  • Ponderer of Things

    both 4. and 5. touched upon some very important issues.
    Women are forced to make career-life choices, much more so than men.

    Swedish study is a really interesting and quite convincing one. One thing I’d like to see is who got the positions – did it correlate well with their “total impact” score? I compared the numbers for a couple of people and the value of “total impact” or “total first-author impact” correlates real well with my own partial perception of quality of scientists. However, it doesn’t really correlate with who gets jobs and who doesn’t. In fact plenty candidates with a lot of high-impact publications get passed over for people with the impact factors half that of others. So there must be some other secret ingredient – quality of presentation, proposal ideas, “sexiness” of science (or presenter?), and of course connections.

    I also wonder how much the difference in assigning scores to men/women was deliberate and how much of it was subconscious. Hiring a woman in her 30ies is a lot riskier than a man in his 30ies, everything else being equal – not just in sciences but any other career. A man is far more reliable – a woman is likely to take time off to have kids. From purely business point of view, even without any prejudice towards the abilities, and everything else absolutely equal, hiring a man is far more “cost-effective” – with women it’s a little like rolling a dice.

    Some anecdotal examples – in biology lab where 80% of personnel are women, 4 out of 11 women are currently pregnant. Head of the group is not too happy about such “coincidence”, as it disrupts his work output quite significantly, but what can he do? Will he think twice before hiring another woman in the future?
    Essentially, he is penalized for having hired them in the first place. A solution to this problem would be to provide people with paid maternity leaves that don’t come out of grant, but general university or laboratory/company funds. In fact you might want to “force” people to take time off – a lot of them continue working, because they can’t afford to take time off, but cannot legally peform most of their usual work with cancerogenic chemicals, radiation, etc.

    Otherwise lab leaders would need to think twice whether to hire “just married” 35-year old, or go for a man instead.

    I am not trying to justify this type of practice by any means – but it’s naive to assume that a boss can be completely impartial in these matters, even if he or she has no prejudices about ability of different sexes.

    Another examples – just yesterday I realized that a postdoc (female) who just started working a few months ago, is quitting to follow her husband who got a job in another part of the country. Turns out she took the job knowing this was very likely to happen at the end of the summer and so she wasn’t working very hard, by her own admission, since there was no way to accomplish anything in such a short time. Since the reverse situation (a man following a woman to be a stay-at-home husband for at least a while) happens much more rarely, are we to assume that even the most fair bosses will not develop some sort of prejudice, especially after they are “dumped” a few times in a row?

    Similar, but obviously far less strong bias may be expressed against men who have children or who have other outside interests that might distract them from working all through the weekend. During one of the interviews a friend just happened to mention to his potential boss that he is an avid outdoor enthusiast, who goes for one-week sailing trips a few times a year and spends most of his weekends in the mountains – hiking, skiing, kayaking. The boss got visibly upset and started questioning my friend’s attitude and motivation to do top science while going on weekend-long trips.

    I am not sure what the solution is, but ideal professor or ideal postdoc, or student is a single-minded lab slave who thinks about science 24/7. This is part of the problem.

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    I am not sure what the solution is, but ideal professor or ideal postdoc, or student is a single-minded lab slave who thinks about science 24/7. This is part of the problem.

    Is this really true?

  • Supernova

    I’d say the closer you are to that ideal, the more likely you are to be perceived as “serious” about science. And by the way, thinking about teaching doesn’t count as thinking about science. Neither does thinking about race/gender issues in science. Hmm… I’d better get back to work.

  • http://sourav.net/ sourav

    I am not sure what the solution is, but ideal professor or ideal postdoc, or student is a single-minded lab slave who thinks about science 24/7. This is part of the problem.

    Continuing your theme of the “business case,” this ideal is in fact valuable. In my limited experience, the most productive scientists I’ve seen live and breathe their work. Even the ones who don’t, are willing to make themselves miserable in order to fit this mold, and their productivity and dedication are rewarded.

    I wonder if tenure is the problem. It provides a horizon for working yourself to the bone to get to the “promise land” of financial security, intellectual independence and presitge; and, the institution has to protect itself from people who just want a cushy semi-retirement at age 40. So the more hardcore you appear, the less of a perceived risk you are. This attitude trickles down to post-docs and even graduate students, and the hard-charging faculty (tenured or otherwise) reinforce it.

    At a surface level this enhances productivity, but how many talented people are driven away, who would want a more relaxed lifestyle? These people might have made big contributions. The essential question is: are current hardcore types the most probable future big contributors?

    The environment is a bit different at non-university institutions. There’s no tenure, so the horizon is actual retirement. People work closer to 9-to-5. And, AFAICT, they don’t work any harder than tenured academics.

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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .


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