The Frontal Cortex

Is Science Sexist?

I’m not so sure, but two prominent scientists, both of whom are transgendered, allege that scientists regularly discriminate and “ostracize” ambitious female scientists. This is the latest twist of the Larry Summers Debate, which has grown a wee bit tiresome. I alluded to Joan Roughgarden’s allegations in Seed last month, but the WSJ has an article on Ben Barres (formerly Barbara Barres), who is also convinced that women and men are treated differently by the scientific establishment. Here is Sharon Begley’s great lead:

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.”

There was only one problem. Prof. Barres, then as now a professor of neurobiology at Stanford University, doesn’t have a sister in science. The Barbara Barres the man remembered was Ben.

Prof. Barres is transgendered, having completed the treatments that made him fully male 10 years ago. The Whitehead talk was his first as a man, so the research he was presenting was done as Barbara.


  1. #1 Agnostic
    July 13, 2006

    Sexism in science, indeed in any domain, makes a testable prediction: that the male : female ratio is positively correlated with the degree of sexism — for instance, psychologists must not be very sexist at all, biologists are somewhat sexist, while physicists & mathematicians are troglodytes. In the arts, literary figures must not be very sexist at all, visual artists & designers are pretty sexist, while music composers are utter cavemen. Assuming that the imbalanced ratio itself is no prima facie evidence of sexism, then I know of no evidence establishing this hierarchy of sexism within the sciences & arts.

  2. #2 RPM
    July 13, 2006

    “I’m not so sure, but two prominent female scientists, both of whom were formerly male scientists…”

    Isn’t one a man who used to be a woman, and the other a woman who used to be a man?

  3. #3 Jonah
    July 13, 2006

    thanks alot for noticing my careless mistake. the post is now fixed.

  4. #4 bob koepp
    July 13, 2006

    Is there sexism among scientists? Well, yes, obviously. Scientists, just like the rest of humans, are prone to inculcating stupid presumptions. Does that make science itself sexist? Well, no, obviously.

  5. #5 tbell
    July 13, 2006

    Whenever I hear a statement like ‘Science is X’, I know a confusing discussion will follow that plays on equivocations between
    Science as a process
    Science as a body of knowledge
    Science as ‘People who do science, or their values’
    Science as technology
    Science as ‘U.S. science’
    Even if the intended use is clear in the original speaker it invariably gets muddled in public discussion.

  6. #6 BilZ0r
    July 13, 2006

    Yeah, it’s an interesting article, the letter by Ben Barres in Nature. I addressed it in my blog (, it’s obvious that Dr. Barres is taking the arguement that men on average may just be better at progressing in science than women, very personally. What I would have thought would be obvious, is that because men and women clearly have their own neuropsychological strengths, men and women are not likely to be exactly as good as each other at different aspects of science.

  7. #7 Quitter
    July 13, 2006

    Anyone consider the possibility that his research 10 years before actually did suck? People can improve with age you know, and maybe feeling like a man trapped in a woman’s body negatively impacted his work.

    Anyway, I don’t mean to be a jackass, really. I believe scientists as a profession tends towards a patriarchy. But it isn’t the science it’s the scientists who are to blame. People bring their bigotries to work all the time, and you shouldn’t be surprised that scientists do it too, we’re all human after all. Even good scientists do it, as anyone who has read Gould’s the Mismeasure of Man would know. Science is a human effort, and therefore will always be contaminated with human flaws and flawed humans to some degree (though less than other belief systems).

    If you don’t think science can be patriarchical? Try working at a southern university. You’ll see it, just wait a while.

  8. #8 Monado
    July 19, 2006

    Quitter, there was a Swedish study about five years ago that showed, even in that oh-so-egalitarian society, that women had to do five times as much publishing of papers to be regarded as well as men.

    It reminds me of Nelly McClung’s comment, “To be thought half as good as a man, a woman must work twice as hard; luckily, that’s not difficult.”

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