Barres examines gender, science debate and offers a novel critique

Timothy Archibald for Newsweek

Having lived as a woman and a man helped Ben Barres to better understand gender discrimination against female scientists.

Ben Barres has a distinct edge over the many others who have joined the debate about whether men's brains are innately better suited for science than women's. He doesn't just make an abstract argument about the similarities and differences between the genders; he has lived as both.

Barres' experience as a female-to-male transgendered person led him to write a pointed commentary in the July 13 issue of Nature rebuking the comments of former Harvard University president Lawrence Summers that raised the possibility that the dearth of women in the upper levels of science is rooted in biology. Marshalling scientific evidence as well as drawing from personal experience, Barres maintained that, contrary to Summers' remarks, the lack of women in the upper reaches of research has more to do with bias than aptitude.

"This is a street fight," said Barres, MD, PhD, professor of neurobiology and of developmental biology and of neurology and neurological sciences, referring to the gang of male academics and pundits who have attacked women scientists who criticized arguments about their alleged biological inferiority.

Barres' piece revived the heated debate about gender inequality in science, garnering worldwide attention including pieces in the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal.

Where Summers sees innate differences, Barres sees discrimination. As a young woman—Barbara—he said he was discouraged from setting his sights on MIT, where he ended up receiving his bachelor's degree. Once there, he was told that a boyfriend must have solved a hard math problem that he had answered and that had stumped most men in the class. After he began living as a man in 1997, Barres overheard another scientist say, "Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but his work is much better than his sister's work."

From Barres' perspective the only thing that changed is his ability to cry. Other than the absence of tears, he feels exactly the same. His science is the same, his interests are the same and he feels the quality of his work is unchanged.

That he could be treated differently by people who think of him as a woman, as a man or as a transgendered person makes Barres angry. What's worse is that some women don't recognize that they are treated differently because, unlike him, they've never known anything else.

The irony, Barres said, is that those who argue in favor of innate differences in scientific ability lack scientific data to explain why women make up more than half of all graduate students but only 10 percent of tenured faculty. The situation is similar for minorities.

"It's leakage along the pipeline all the way," Stanford President John Hennessy, who last year spoke out against Summers' original remarks, said in an interview with a Newsweek reporter.

Yet scientists of both sexes are ready to attribute the gap to a gender difference. "They don't care what the data is," Barres said. "That's the meaning of prejudice."

Barres doesn't think that scientists at the top of the ladder mean harm. "I am certain that all of the proponents of the Larry Summers hypothesis are well-meaning and fair-minded people," he wrote in his Nature commentary. Still, because we all grew up in a culture that holds men and women to different standards, people are blind to their inherent biases, Barres said.

In his essay Barres points to data from a range of studies showing bias in science. For example, when a mixed panel of scientists evaluated grant proposals without names, men and women fared equally. However, when competing unblinded, a woman applying for a research grant needed to be three times more productive than men to be considered equally competent.

Further evidence comes from Mahzarin Banaji, PhD, professor of psychology at Harvard. She and her colleagues have devised a test that forces people to quickly associate terms with genders. The results revealed that both men and women are less likely to associate scientific words with women than with men.

Given these and other findings, Barres wondered how scientists could fail to admit that discrimination is a problem. His answer? Optimism. Most scientists want to believe that they are fair, he said, and for that reason overlook data indicating that they probably aren't.

Unfortunately, this optimism prevents those at the top of the field from taking steps to eliminate a bias they don't acknowledge. "People can't change until they see there's a problem," he said.

Barres' colleague Jennifer Raymond, PhD, assistant professor of neurobiology, said she appreciates his speaking out. "Most people do think there is a level playing field despite the data to the contrary," she said.

Medical school Dean Philip Pizzo, MD, also applauds Barres' efforts to promote fairness in science. "Dr. Barres is right to challenge individuals and organizations who contribute to known or unknown bias. He compels us to think more critically and honestly and to grow in more positive directions," Pizzo said.

Barres' concerns go beyond his own advancement. Pointing to his own large office, replete with comfortable furniture and a coffee table, he said, "I have everything I need." As a tenured professor, he's not fighting for himself. "This is about my students," he said. "I want them all to be successful."

And he wants science to move forward, which means looking beyond the abilities of white men, who make up 8 percent of the world's population. The odds that all of the world's best scientists can be found in that subset is, at best, small, he said.

With that in mind, Barres has been at the forefront of the fight to make science fairer for all genders and races. One focus is eliminating bias from grant applications, especially for the most lucrative grants where the stakes are highest.

Last year, Barres convinced the National Institutes of Health to change how it chooses talented young scientists to receive its Director's Pioneer Award, worth $500,000 per year for five years. In 2004, the 64-person selection panel consisted of 60 men; all nine grants went to men. In 2005, the agency increased the number of women on the panel; six of the 13 grants went to women. Barres said that he has now set his sights on challenging what he perceives as gender bias in the Howard Hughes Investigator program, an elite scientific award that virtually guarantees long-term research funding.

In his commentary, Barres listed additional ideas for how to retain more women and minorities in science, beyond the standard cries to simply hire more women. He suggested that women scientists be judged by the quality of their science rather than the quantity, given that many bear the brunt of child-care responsibilities. He proposed enacting more gender-balanced selection processes for grants and job searches, as with the Pioneer award. And he called on academic leaders to speak out when departments aren't diverse.

Barres said that critics have dismissed women who complain of discrimination in science as being irrational and emotional, but he said that the opposite argument is easy to make. "It is overwhelmingly men who commit violent crimes out of rage and anger," he wrote. "If any one ever sees a women with road rage, they should write it up and send it to a medical journal."

He continued, "I am tired of powerful people using their position to demean me just because I am different from them. . . . I will certainly not sit around silently and endure them."