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.

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Geekery Editor for Autostraddle, Part-time Faculty at The New School (teaching digital storytelling), Managing Editor for Scholar & Feminist Online at Barnard Center for Research On Women. Follow me on Twitter @AEOsworth or on Instagram, also @AEOsworth.

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  1. 0

    One of my closest friends is currently at Cambridge university studying engineering. In her study group of 15, there is one girl besides her. It always makes me feel so fucking angry. =/

    I wonder if they did the same tests, but said “women do better at this task”? It’d be really interesting to see if that improved results for girls. It’s like the whole of humanity has an inbuilt capacity for neurosis and self-doubt, but it gets activated way more in girls than in guys. Bah.

    • 0

      Stereotype threat isn’t a male/female thing, its a stereotype thing. So saying that girls perform better will end up overall better results for women than saying women do worse, it’s more complicated than that. The stereotype can also be race, sexual orientation or any other identity marker that is met with stereotypes about abilities.

      However, for stereotype threat to be a factor, two things must exist. First the person must want to do well on the task at hand. Secondly the participant must be reminded of their group identity and told that identity performs worse on a particular type of task, that is consistent with the stereotypes of that group. So women in math is a common one. If those factors aren’t present there will be no stereotype threat which is what this guy is talking about.

      • 0

        So I didn’t proof read that first paragraph. It should say something more like this:

        Stereotype threat isn’t a male/female thing. It’s a stereotype thing. So saying that “girls perform better” before a task will end up overall better results for women than saying “women do worse”. However, it’s more complicated than that. Stereotype threat can happen with many identities like race, sexual orientation or any other identity marker that is met with stereotypes about abilities.

    • 0

      There have been studies like that! Typical set-up involves groups of test takers reading articles about how women are typically good at that particular subject before they take the test. Women who read the article about how they should do well do better than those who read a non gender related article. If I’m remembering correctly, Men showed no significant difference when they are either positively or negatively gender primed.

  2. 0

    Yay trans person! I guess this isn’t a popular idea for some people but I do think some trans folk have a unique experience because due to transition/presentation we experience different societal reactions and that can make us, hopefully, more sensitive to the prejudices that are out there. I like seeing Dr. Barres use his experiences with his former female presentation in this way.

    His point about data is also excellent because I know that as a scientist I always want to see cited sources. People throw around a lot of assumptions with nothing but feeling to back it and I value logical thought over that, though of course emotion has its place. Many people who would otherwise not respond to this issue will if they are presented with hard numbers.

  3. 0

    I knew there were not a lot of women in my engineering classes but I wasn’t too in tune with it at the time. It was a small university after all; now at meetings and conferences I notice I’m the only woman my age and one of maybe ten women out of 500 people! Its a little infuriating, plus you get next to no respect from most men in the engineering field.
    Plus being queer is a double whammy because they assume I’m with my boyfriend/husband/male chaperone and that always rubs me the wrong way. At least they do not know I am a trans woman that would make their heads explode 😉

  4. 0

    I hate to admit it, but being the only girl in the class was a major factor in putting me off civil engineering for next year. In many ways I’m really glad i got to go to an all girls school, because i was offered all the science subjects and higher maths, so i really got to give myself a good shot at it, regardless of whether I pursued it later

  5. 0

    This is one of the articles I show my friends when the topic of women in STEM fields comes up. He has such a quotable example of sexism! I’m a grad student researcher in CS and I transitioned during grad school (now there’s something that throws off a research schedule and then leaves you wondering whether or not you really even want to be in your field anymore…) and it’s been fascinating to see some of the differences. Sexism is really really subtle unless you have a chance to see what happens when people think your gender is different. Then well, it’s less subtle.

    > very recently published an article

    I see what you did there. 🙂

    • 0

      I’m transitioning while trying to complete my dissertation (and yes it is a wonderful way to throw off your research schedule and bring your goals into question….) and for the past 8 years I’ve worked as a research assistant in a federal laboratory. I’ve found that I now have to more thoroughly defend my ideas and even my scientific ability compared to two years ago when I was presenting as male (even by people who have known me before and through my transition!)

      The percentage of women in environmental and geosciences (I’m a geoscientist) is depressing. In my department at the university the ratio of women to men in the MS program is about 50:50, but very few PhD students are female. There are only 3 female professors – and they have all been hired in the past few years. Likewise at work the majority of the research assistants are female, but there are only 2 female senior scientists in our group.

      • 0

        I’m a PhD student in Environmental engineering, my research overlaps with geosciences though (of course from a more engineering stand point)! Anyway, in the PhD program there is almost 50:50 women/men (maybe a little more men) same with the MS program. I received my BS is Chemical Engineering and there were about 5 girls in a graduating class of 25 (at a large university). The lack of female faculty at all the schools I have been to is ridiculous considering how many women are graduating with PhDs in STEM. It is still an old boys club for sure.

        • 0

          My department is actively trying to recruit more women both as students and as faculty. Truthfully we are having some difficulty recruiting new PhD students, female or male. But I think that the overwhelmingly male (and older male) face of the department may discourage some prospective female students who don’t see people who share their experience. My advisor has been very supportive but he is not able to mentor me regarding navigating my career as a female scientist. I fact his advice has shifted from encouraging a research career (pre-transition) to suggesting that I might be happy teaching “at some small college somewhere” (post-transition).

          • 0

            Ugh, I say screw ’em, if you want to do academic research it is out there, very competitive, but it is there and you have as good of a shot as anyone if you want it badly enough. Funding sources are often partial to women, because of the dearth of women in sciences, so post-doc research can of course help boost the resume. I decided academic research isn’t for me (even though my advisor is pushing it) mostly because location is very important to me. Good luck!

          • 0

            Thanks! Good luck to you too! I actually might not mind teaching at a small college but it burns when suddenly someone pidgeon-holes me. I enjoy and have a good aptitude for research which is why he always encouraged me to follow that path. Right now I just want to finish my degree and find a post-doc, teaching position or anything. It’s a hard job market for PhD’s and research funding – especially for environmental research – is hard to find.

  6. 0

    Of seven people who started at the same time for my program (pharmaceutical sciences), three of us were girls; one has since left, leaving us with just two of six. For the sub-program I’m in (pharmaceutics), I’m the only woman out of four of us.
    Given what some of the other folks here have said, I’ll just count myself lucky that the numbers are as good as they are for my program.

  7. 0

    Love this.
    I’m currently working on a PhD in math and while my incoming cohort was more women than men, very quickly most girls switched to the master’s program or dropped out. A few years in and there’s already more boys than girls.

    What’s odd about this article is that it makes me feel like every woman in a STEM field is/should be a feminist and sometimes I am reminded that this is not true. There is a girl who started with me and is finishing her MS and she fits every rural Oklahoma stereotype. She takes the bible literally. Evolution didn’t happen. The human body appeared this way on Earth and has never changed. I am a slave to sin and going to hell, not because I’m gay, not because I occasionally consume alcohol, not for any reason other than I did not accept Jesus. (This is how she has explained it to me.) Homosexuality is not right because it’s a broken picture from the start, that is, there can be no children. Women obey their husbands and don’t need careers once they have a house to run. She worked at a camp this summer and obviously she worked in the kitchen.

    Really it’s depressing that people like this exist (she was home schooled until undergrad). Particularly in a math department where proofs don’t exist without logic and the problem is not solved until every possibility has been addressed. As far as faculty, I’ve always found math departments to be the most accepting of queers if only because you don’t get a PhD in math without getting a lot of blank stares and people completely brushing off your passion as though it doesn’t exist.

    In liberal arts communities and even sciences (maybe not physics) I get the oh-i-hated-math brush off, in engineering communities I get the what-is-there-to-research-in-math brush off and in the conservative christian communities I get the oh-being-queer-is-just-a-phase brush off (as well as the what-does-a-woman-need-a-phd-for brush off but that is much easier to ignore). In Oklahoma that honestly doesn’t leave much.

    I know that was sort of a rant but this article super hits home so thanks for doing it!

    • 0

      I’m sure your research is way more difficult than ours, it is just that most engineers are over confident d-bags who think their research is actually important, when only about 0.01% (true statistic I just made up) actually makes a difference in our society. =/

  8. 0

    Interesting article! when I was studying my biosciences degree you could see the gender gap painfully in the common rooms, one for undergrads and one for postgrads. The postgrad common room was almost exclusively male, with the obligatory posters of semi naked women and football teams covering the walls, the undergrad common room was more or less a 50/50 split. Three years later, out of my female classmates one is studying a PhD, one is working as a sciences assistant in a school and the other 5 of us are only vaguely associated in-field, if at all. One of the women stacks shelves in a grocery store. I know there’s a lot of blame to put on the economy too but out of my 10 male classmates so for as I know 8 of them are either working in a direct pharma/research role or completing further study. This stereotype that girls just can’t do science is damaging and insulting, personally it makes me want to pull my hair out with frustration.

  9. 0

    Very interesting stuff, but one question is raised by the volume of informations in the data at the base of the article: Is the main detractor to their progress in science self inflicted? If you look closely at the graphs, it very readily
    states that women who state their gender before a test, test worse. It also highlights a very common trait: low self esteem. Now at the beginning, the question raised is, “Are men to blame, as they want women there for dating purposes”, and yet the latter information in the graphs really doesn’t touch upon male-influenced factors, rather factors of… for lack of a better term “self-sabotage”.

    Misogyny may be present, but that data does not indicate that it is a factor in the lack of females in the field. I wonder whether the lack of women may well be down to psychological differences in the sexes, where men are simply more confident and couldn’t give a fuck less about their self esteem in regards to education? Definitely a puzzle.

    • 0

      But where do those “psychological differences” come from? I suspect that women tend to have lower self-esteem, at least in part, because they’re taught to think that men are more competent and that they have to prove themselves at every turn. If a man messes up, it doesn’t necessarily reflect on his character. But if a woman messes up, it’s more likely that her entire worth as a scientist/writer/teacher/human being will be called into question. Just speaking from personal observation, I’d say that women’s lower self esteem is an indicator of misogyny in itself.

      • 0

        I agree. I think being constantly devalued by society in hundreds of little ways does indeed inspire low self esteem. We don’t exist in a psychological vacuum after all. We’re taught what is worthy in society and internalize those messages.

      • 0

        But then that is an incredibly difficult thing to quantify. Without men directly coming out and saying “You messed up, you’re worthless”, I can’t see it being so direct. I genuinely believe men and women are criticised equally, but men simply don’t take it personally. This is purely personal observation, but criticisms tend to be taken far stronger by women than men. Tell a guy he is physically unattractive, he’ll think you’re a dick, but it generally won’t ruin their month. That criticism I find stays with a woman, sometimes for years.

        With that in mind, again, is this really the fault of men? Or is this simply a by-product of billions of years of social evolution? That the female of the species suffers more from crises of confidence, and as such, performs poorly in tests when given as simply a task as specifying their gender?

        Food for thought.

        • 0

          Men are not raised to think that the most important thing about them is that their appearance is pleasing to others. Which is why you don’t so often see men wearing make-up and trying to stave off wrinkles with expensive products. It’s not necessarily all about what is happening at college level, but about what came before that.

          On a more direct level, I know a woman who wanted to study Physics in school, but school staff tried every argument they could think of to put her off and encourage her to take History instead. When no other argument worked, they told her that ‘all the other kids taking the class are boys: you won’t like it.’ At that point, she realised that they simply did not want her to do the class, and had absolutely no investment in her success in the subject, so she gave up. A few years later, she told me that she wished she had held out. This was over 20 years ago now, and I hope that things have improved since then, but I doubt that they are actually equal yet.

          Staff at my daughter’s school constantly ascribe her social difficulties to the fact that, apart from her, her class is made up entirely of boys. Honestly, this has nothing at all to do with it; she is just as comfortable with boys as with girls, if they have the same interests as her. Her difficulties are more to do with being an alternative type of person, and having zero interest in pop stars, shoes, hairstyles or admiring boys, and a strong interest in social justice issues, the environment, reading and art. But the staff’s sense of the ‘obvious’ gender divide is so strong that they seem to have difficulty seeing past it, regardless of what I (or she) says. The fact is, she finds most girls at her school just as uninteresting as the boys.

          • 0

            The last paragraph reminds me of the Skins episode where Jal is competing as a clarinetist in the big national music competition, and her school just assumes that she must be from a disadvantaged background and have to conquer all these personal hurdles simply because she’s black, when actually her dad is a famous music producer and she’s fairly well-off.

    • 0

      Also, women get positive reinforcement when they CONFORM to authority; men get positive reinforcement when they DEFY authority. So if a scientist has an experiment go poorly and his peers’ expectations are that he is a poor scientist, their approval of him will go UP if he just tries harder. However if the scientist is female and she decides to persevere, her peers’ approval of her will go DOWN.

  10. 0

    There is a book called “Delusions of Gender” by Cornelia Finde. It discusses these studies and more and will probably invoke a lot of feminist rage…but everyone should read it anyways.

  11. 0

    I just wanted to point out that IQ is a completely manufactured thing, so it shouldn’t be treated as holy gospel. When IQ tests were first made, women did way better than men, so they changed the tests until the scores were more equivalent.

  12. 0

    This is awesome. You are awesome for sitting them down for that talk.

    The self-assessment thing in growing girls, THAT. Yesterday I found a scrapbook my mom made of my middle school years, with certificates from when I got first place in a math competition, in a math league? I have NO MEMORY OF THIS. I’m always insistent that I am terrible at math, that I have always been terrible at math, I have never gotten math, and now I have this award I don’t remember getting and really good standardized test scores in math up until I was in 8th grade, and then clearly the biggest brainfart of my life and a conviction that I was good at reading and only reading and had only ever been good at reading the end.

    Obviously the patriarchy has incepted me. BRRRRM.

  13. 0

    All through K-12 I did really really well in a variety of math subjects. In fact, after I moved from Haiti(I was 11), I excelled way above my peers because of a very math-focused k-12 education.

    During my 2nd year of undergrad, I decided that I wanted to take a calculus class for funsies. It was not related to my studies in the least, but would have fulfilled a deductive reasoning requirement. That said,I was forcefully asked to reconsider by several friends(mostly gay men). After arguing for a while, I just got beatdown. I just let myself believe that taking this class would be my undoing. I never once remembered to argue that though I was studying English literature, I has once been just as skilled in my math classes. It boggles the fucking mind!

    And then after that…I somehow just started believing that I was terrible in a math classroom!! I know!! WTF!

    The fuckedUpness of it all didn’t even occur until a few year after graduation when I found myself tutoring kids and… all of it, the math, just came back!

  14. 0

    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.)

  15. 0

    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.)

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