Are people evaluating your science or your gender? Could you ever know?
You’re not the only one who has wondered if those people were reacting to your gender or to your work. And you’re also not the only one who wishes you could scientifically test your hypothesis. Too bad that it’s impossible. Well, maybe not impossible. I mean, you could alter your appearance and present yourself in a gender you don’t regularly present as, assuming you could do that. But of course, when you talk, people usually know the work as belonging to you, so you’d have to talk about something you’re not known for doing. That would be hard in any case. But it also would be a problem because then you’d be a non-entity, and that alone might affect the way your work is received. So, you’d have to present new work as a non-entity in the gender you do regularly present as, but somehow unrecognizably so, in addition to presenting elsewhere in a gender you don’t regularly present as. And, um, control for the conference too (you can’t present the same talk in two different genders- people might notice that). And, you’d probably have to do it lots of times to control for noise and error. Can you tell my day job involves designing human experiments? (Noninvasive and ethical ones – otherwise this makes me sound crazy!)
So, let’s be honest: it would be nigh impossible to do a scientific test to see whether those people were reacting to your gender or your work. Though, it definitely is possible to look at how groups of people are treated, even holding content constant (e.g., through studies of CV’s, job applications, and blinded vs. unblinded papers – as people have done, showing gender bias in favor of men). But it’s not really possible to know about your treatment as a particular case. That’s one reason why qualitative work, lived experiences, and narratives are so important. Sometimes, someone shares a life experience that helps us understand questions like these. Questions like: would my science be taken more seriously if I were a man? (If you are a man, you could always wonder if your science would be taken less seriously if you were a woman. Go ahead! Have a ball with that! It’s a lot of fun thinking about it!)
Ben Barres is a world-renowned neurobiologist who apparently publishes only in Nature journals, PNAS, Cell, and nose-bleedingly high impact journals. And who also appears to like Harry Potter. Are the two correlated? Inquiring minds want to know! He also has transitioned gender/sex and generously shares his experiences of once being a scientist-who-presented-as-a-woman and now being a scientist-who-is-a-man (or, in the eyes of the world at large: a scientist). I first read about Professor Barres’ experiences from a commentary in Nature called “Does Gender Matter?” some time ago. Before I go on, I want to clarify an exceedingly important point from the Nature commentary PDF I attached: if you read one of my last posts entitled “Philosophers got beards, scientists got crazy hair? Thinking feminist across disciplines” you may be tempted to think that the man in the photo (on the PDF, not Barres) is a philosopher because he has facial hair, but you’ll notice, upon further inspection, that his facial hair is a mustache, and not a beard. Is his hair crazy enough to be a scientist-archetype? Head-hair: no. Mustache hair? YES. I never specified that scientists have crazy hair on their heads. (phew. close call.) Here is also a nice write-up referring to some of the main points from the Nature commentary, in Science Daily. I do have to admit that according to my formula and close inspection of Barres image, he must be a philosopher… but he’s not. So he should probably change his hair to be more crazy because I’m not changing my theory. (Always the mark of a good scientist.)
By the point that I read Barres’ commentary, I was knees deep in thinking about gender and academia, feminist science studies, and gender/sex, so it’s not surprising that the article was incredibly exciting to me. It made me want to do the running man all over campus (a 90’s dance move that has been scientifically confirmed as “awesome”) (not exactly). Here’s my favorite quote, one I still remember, that Dr. Barres overhead another faculty member making: “Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but his work is much better than his sister’s work.” If you don’t get why this statement is so powerful, it’s this: Ben Barres doesn’t have a sister. What-? But-? Who-? That faculty member was comparing the science Dr. Barres presented as a man to the science he presented before his transition, when his public presentation was as a woman.
I want to intervene in my own blog post for a moment. There is a long, sordid, and disturbing history in both science and feminism to use the experiences of gender-variant people to prove some point about gender/sex. People with same-sex interests, intersex-identified people or people with disorders of sex development, girls who like “boy” things and boys who like “girl” things, and – you guessed it – trans-identified folks. In fact, a widely used term in science (or at least the disciplines I roam around in) is “natural experiment”, which refers to when something happens that allows you to test your hypothesis that you would otherwise be unable to do for ethical reasons. I don’t think it’s a good idea to use trans’ experiences just to exemplify some other point. And it’s never a good idea to refer to actual people, especially marginalized groups, as “natural experiments.” So I hope that it’s clear that I’m not using Ben Barres’ experiences to make a point; he is. And lucky for us, ’cause it’s a really great fucking point.
Barres makes a larger point: “Like many women and minorities, however, I am suspicious when those who are at an advantage proclaim that a disadvantaged group of people is innately less able.” Basically this means: people in power like to think they deserve it, which basically means they have to think that people out of power must deserve their lack of power. And by “deserve”, people in power mean “innately suited to” X. Like, women are just innately worse at science than men, and all the known discrimination has nothing to do with nothing! I mean, obviously in our evolutionary history, women were too busy picking nail polish colors and complaining about muffin-tops to deal thoughtfully with all the test tubes and generators and Bunsen burners lying around, so men got “evolved” to do science and women didn’t really get evolved at all (Sarah Blaffer Hrdy has a perfectly-titled book to reference here called “The Woman That Never Evolved). Men = good scientists, women = not. Thems the breaks! Taken to a logical extension, we can imagine that the reason that the U.S. has few scientists from, say, the Congo, is not because of silly, ineffectual things like colonialism, arms dealing, racism, nationalism, poverty, immigration policies, etc., but instead because those Congolese just don’t have what it takes! I mean, that’s obvious, right?
In science there is a rule called “parsimony” that refers to taking the most obvious and simplest answer supported by the evidence of all possible answers. Obviously it is more parsimonious to assume that marginalized people have lesser innate ability than to point to the structural barriers to their involvement that are well-documented (Barres has a great powerpoint about all this, here). Um, or do I mean ‘convenient’ rather than parsimonious? Or maybe “a better way for people to explain why men get to be good at science and women kind of don’t (or at least don’t really) so that no one has to feel bad about their own complicity in a problematic system.” That’s a mouthful, I agree. But, hey, what do I know? I’m just a scientist-who-is-a-woman and this all sounds dangerously close to logic and theory and, well, thinking. Maybe my brother, if I had one, would get parsimony better than I do. It seems obvious he’d be a better scientist.
Thanks to Ben Barres for suggesting some great content for this post!