Dr. Ben Barres Knows That Misogyny in the Sciences Is Real

Feature image via Harkey Science

When I was living in France back in 2009, I taught English at a university that catered only to computer science students. Ninety percent of my students were male. I had only three female students during my four months as an English tutor. My male students referred to their female colleagues as either chaste workaholics or whores who would sleep with anyone to avoid doing work to get to the top. This was not my experience with the female students. When one of my students told me that homosexuality was a sin against God and that women belonged in the kitchen, I had had enough. I made them sit in a circle on the floor and we had a discussion about feminism. None of my female students were present at the time. When I asked them why there weren’t more women at the school, none of them pointed to the way they treat women in the classroom. None of them even considered that their assertion that they’d love to see more women at the university because they’d love to date them even remotely a detractor for women choosing what to study and where to study it. They all told me that women just are not innately interested in science, and in fact they weren’t innately good at it.

Ben Barres

via ai.eecs.umich.edu

Dr. Ben Barres studies and teaches neurobiology at Stanford, with a focus on neuron-glial interactions in the development of the central nervous system. He graduated from MIT back when he was presenting as Barbara Barres, a period of his life he has no problem with speaking about publicly because he believes it gives him an interesting insight into the increasingly covered dearth of women in science. The Wall Street Journal very recently published an article about Dr. Barres’s take on the subject. It’s worth noting that the Wall Street Journal coverage has some semi-problematic language, headline included. However, some of the language comes from the way Dr. Barres himself speaks about and frames his own transition. You do you, Dr. Barres! The truly important thing is that the article is rife with anecdotes of the differences between Barres’s treatment from others when presenting as female versus when presenting as male. For instance:

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.”

Dr. Barres does not have a sister. In fact, the scientist was remembering Dr. Barres in previous years. Same research. Same person. But he was taken more seriously while presenting as male. This is an experience many of us feel personally every day, regardless of which field we work in.

The interesting thing about Dr. Barres is that, unlike me, he’s not working off of personal anecdotes alone. He’s a scientist and he knows about brains. He looks at the data to refute the claims by Larry Summers, a former Harvard president, that women have a lack of “intrinsic aptitude” for math and science, and that’s why there aren’t so many women at the top level. Barres asserts that there are no differences in cognitive ability between the sexes, but rather the treatment of women accounts for the gender gap in scientific field and that the under-representation of women in the professoriate is entirely based on social factors.

This is not news for us. It’s clearly not news for Barres. He lectured on the subject in 2008, and you can see the entire two hour lecture and even have the slides all for yourself, which I highly recommend. He’s also backed up by other sources, which say that when women are reminded before an exam that they are supposed to be worse at science by being asked to indicate their gender, they do worse on that exam.

girls in science

via EngineeringDegree.net

So what should we do about it? “Ask to see the data,” says Ben Barres in his lecture. Assumptions about women, even the ones we’ve all grown up hearing, are rarely backed by the data that is cited in these so called studies. And he tells all of us women in academia to ask for what we need and take it upon ourselves to tackle stereotypes and prejudices where we see them. This is certainly something we can extrapolate and take to heart in our every day lives, scientists or not.

A.E. Osworth is part-time Faculty at The New School, where they teach undergraduates the art of digital storytelling. Their novel, We Are Watching Eliza Bright, about a game developer dealing with harassment (and narrated collectively by a fictional subreddit), is forthcoming from Grand Central Publishing (April 2021) and is available for pre-order now. They have an eight-year freelancing career and you can find their work on Autostraddle (where they used to be the Geekery Editor), Guernica, Quartz, Electric Lit, Paper Darts, Mashable, and drDoctor, among others.

A.E. has written 545 articles for us.

44 Comments

  1. Two years ago, I attended the major annual neuroscience conference with about 30,000 others. Ben Barres had been invited to give one of the special lectures, which are longer and better attended than most talks at the conference. His work is a bit outside my sub-area of neuroscience, but I had a free half hour and stopped by to hear about his work on glia. His talk was, scientifically, my favorite part of the conference. What I left talking about, however, was that in the middle of this fantastic scientific presentation he was delivering to an auditorium full of people, he stopped to talk for a few minutes about his experiences and perspective on the treatment of women in science. He mentioned the lecture that you linked to (which was the first thing I watched after getting home, and was then something I made all of my friends watch also), and also took a minute to directly address younger LGBTQ neuroscientists. He offered encouragement for coming out, and said that he had never found it to have impeded his ability to be successful in academic science. He also said it better than that, but I can’t remember his actual words because my baby queer heart had probably stopped beating for a minute while he was saying it. And then he went back and presented the rest of his beautiful, beautiful science.
    tl;dr: I admire Ben Barres very much, and I’m glad you posted this.

    (As an aside, I’m against trying to make the argument “girls are smarter than boys,” since I don’t think there are sufficient data to support that claim and it strikes me as unproductive. “Boys are not smarter/better at math and science than girls” works fine.)

  2. I work in a company that does a lot of product development. This means I work with a lot of engineers. Not only are a vast majority of them men, but the female engineers that do work for my company are rarely in high-level positions. I have fortnightly project meetings in which I am one of 2 or 3 females in a room of 20. (And those females are generally not the engineers, either.)

  3. Pingback: Link Dump: #76 | Pussy Goes Grrr

  4. Pingback: Transitioning in Science | Figure One

Contribute to the conversation...

Yay! You've decided to leave a comment. That's fantastic. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated by the guidelines laid out in our comment policy. Let's have a personal and meaningful conversation and thanks for stopping by!