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July 13, 2006

Male scientist writes about life as female scientist

Stanford neuroscientist Ben Barres has a unique perspective on the obstacles for women in science. Barres was born female, trained for a scientific career as a woman, and experienced a significant chunk of her scientific career in a woman's body. He underwent a sex change operation nine years ago, at the age of 42.

"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." [WaPo]

Barres's account of life as a male and female scientist was published this week in the journal Nature. (Subscription required.)


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I agree with this article. How do you defeat the argument though, that perhaps Ben was born with a male wired brain?

Wait, I obviously missed the point of the article. Scratch that. No more freaking multi-tasking for me.

Ben says he was treated with less respect in a female body. Unless you want to argue that people with male-brains-in-female-bodies get way less respect in science than people with female-brains-in-female-bodies, then Ben's story provides anecdotal evidence that with female bodies and names are discriminated against in science. Since the overwhelmingly majority of lady-lookin' folks are in fact lifelong women, the implications of Ben's experiences can be generalized.

Now, Ben's case is also evidence that women can advance in science despite sexism. He obviously had a promising career before his sex change, and continued to thrive afterwards. However, if he did have a male brain in a female body, that might explain why success came more readily to him in a male-dominated sphere for reasons that had nothing to do with scientific acumen and everything to do with arbitrary male personality traits. I'd say that I've got a more male-typical personality than most women, and I totally believe that life in male dominated-spheres is easier for me than for stereotypically girly girls, even those who have more quantitative acumen or aggression than I do. I just get to short-circuit a lot of prejudices because I fit in well with guys.

Ben's story is just one more data point to show that superficial appearance of gender is a barrier. The dude's his own control group. Not dispositive, but still very cool.

X-posted with Dugas. Nevermind.

However, if he did have a male brain in a female body, that might explain why success came more readily to him in a male-dominated sphere for reasons that had nothing to do with scientific acumen and everything to do with arbitrary male personality traits.

I suspect a lot of these arbitrary personality traits are more due to socialization than to innate differences. Luckily, there is a way to test my suspicion: identify households and communities with non-traditional and progressive gender socialization, and compare males and females who grow up in them to a control group of males and females who grow up in traditional environments.

Joan Roughgarden, theoretical ecologist at Stanford, went the opposite direction male to female. She's written a book recently about gender-related biology stuff: "Evolution's Rainbow - Diversity, Gender and Sexuality in Nature and People". I haven't read it, so I don't know how she addresses the subject at hand. The reviews at the following site are worth reading:

Were it not for female-to-male transgendered bias, I'd say Barres' has the lock on this question. I'd like to see somebody try to repeat the experiment in Macaques.

Roughgarden's book also represents a control against the hypothesis that becoming a woman was what made Barres' turn from science to autobiography. We also have Eugenides' & Frey's books suggesting that transexuality is so juicy people will make it up to write about it in the first-person, and that about half the transgendered autobiographies being published aren't even being written by transgendereds, let alone scientists. So I don't think the fact that Barres or Roughgarden are writing about themselves has anything to do with having had a sex change.

MT, what's your point? That people sometimes lie about sex and sexuality in their autobiographies? I certainly can't argue with that.

But do you any reason to believe that these respected scientists are being untruthful, other than the fact that they're writing about sex?

I think the main problem here is that the claim is anecdotal and its about how one feels they are percieved, something difficult to measure. I wouldn't even dispute it generally speaking, as a man, sex is always on my brain as it relates to women, so the idea that I might become distracted around women, or not listen as intently as I would to a man, doesn't really surprise me. But with regards to this case in particular, it could also just be the result of more selfconfidence on the part of the scientist in her new 'role', rather than indicative of anything more general.

I'm sure these scientists would be the first to admit that their anecdotal experiences can't substitute for rigorous controlled research.

However, it could also be that Dr. Barres felt more confident as a man because he felt entitled to act more confident in his new male body. Acting more confident makes you feel more confident.

In fact, a lot of being confident is just managing to act confident. Empirically, a significant determinate of how confident you act is how much support and encouragement you get for your assertive behavior. It's a positively reinforcing cycle.

Well, the WaPo article quotes a woman as saying her papers were accepted more when she started using her initials instead of her full first name. Kind of like resumes getting more attention when they come with 'white' names instead of 'black' ones.

The Nature article mentions some actual data, including women having to be a lot more scientifically productive to get the same evaluation levels.

I was just acting a fool. I guess it's only when I try it doesn't work.

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