Monday, July 17, 2006

Truth and Science Reprise

Anyone who doubts that sexism remains a problem deep and wide in our world should read, no REALLY read this Washington Post article on transgendered Stanford University neurobiologist Ben Barres. He spent the first half of his career being ignored and underestimated because... well, as close as he can figure... because he was a woman.

His article appears in the journal Nature and provides a unique perspective on former Harvard president Lawrence Summer's assertion that innate differences between the sexes might explain why many fewer women than men reach the highest echelons of science.

Here are a few of my favorite anecdotes from the article:

After he underwent a sex change nine years ago at the age of 42, Barres recalled, another scientist who was unaware of it was heard to say, "Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but then his work is much better than his sister's."

And as a female undergraduate at MIT, Barres once solved a difficult math problem that stumped many male classmates, only to be told by a professor: "Your boyfriend must have solved it for you."

"By far," Barres wrote, "the main difference I have noticed is that people who don't know I am transgendered treat me with much more respect" than when he was a woman. "I can even complete a whole sentence without being interrupted by a man."

Barres said the switch had given him access to conversations that would have excluded him previously: "I had a conversation with a male surgeon and he told me he had never met a woman surgeon who was as good as a man."

Barres's salvo, bolstered with scientific studies, marks a dramatic twist in a controversy that began with Summers's suggestion last year that "intrinsic aptitude" may explain why there are relatively few tenured female scientists at Harvard. After a lengthy feud with the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Summers resigned earlier this year.

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