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! BenBarresHe 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!

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4 Responses

  1. Stacey Ritz says:

    Brilliant and hilarious, as always Sari. I remember when I first read about Ben Barres’ story, and the comparisons to “his sister” — amazing. Not in the good way of amazingness.

    This phenomenon has been so well documented, and yet it seems very difficult to find solutions. Sometimes it’s suggested that blinded peer-review could be helpful, but there are serious barriers to that. Experts who are well-acquainted with people in their field can often figure out who the authors are, even if their names are removed: if I were to read a grant proposal or manuscript from an investigator looking at a mouse model of sex differences in respiratory function in neonates, that alone would narrow it down to a tiny group of candidates, and if they cited their own work at all, it would become obvious pretty quickly. Maybe this is a bigger problem in smaller research communities (like in Canada) than in the US, but I would think it still wouldn’t be that hard.

    I’m not sure if this is a fixable problem. Maybe I just need to be more creative. Plus, the depressing thing is that blinding people or otherwise hiding gender in these situations might mitigate the effects of the problem (ie. sexism), but it wouldn’t actually address SEXISM, if you see what I’m saying. Figuring out workarounds for sexism is a thing we can do, but for me it’s unsatisfying unless those workarounds are accompanied by efforts to actually try and deal with the sexism itself.

    Also, I noticed that you didn’t use the word ‘sexism’ in your post at all….was that deliberate? I’m curious.

    And finally — muffintops. I want to buy Spanx but (a) they cost a million dollars and (b) fuck the fucked up culture that makes me worry about muffintops, and (c) and I still want to buy Spanx anyways and (d) aaaaarrrrrrrgggh.

  2. Meredith-Chivers says:

    I need to be prepping that midterm but I also needed to say this:

    1) Spanks are overrated. And sweaty. Screw the clothes that require such restraints.

    2) I am sometimes hopeful that, with time, more equal representation of women kicking ass in the sciences will change the current gender-biased landscape. Then I receive thank-you notes from my undergraduate students (supposed to be more progressive, right?) commenting on what a great role model I am (*blushing*), how smart I am (aww!) and, in the same sentence, how I was soooo….SEXY! (booo!). This concerns me a lot, that the women-as-scientist niche that can only be fully occupied by women IF they are sexy. See this webpage, and a lot of other crap like it:

    In revolt, I started showing up to lecture in the schleppiest clothes I could find. And I wondered…am I still sexy? Or more importantly, am I still a strong mentor? and smart? or am I now just another nerdy woman who needs a makeover?

    Lots more to say. But that midterm…

  3. Stacey Ritz says:

    Oh, the angst of being a female scientist getting dressed for teaching. Where I teach we don’t have “courses” in the traditional sense, but when I am giving lectures or running whole-class events, I fucking AGONIZE over what to wear. I want to look polished and professional, but I DEFINITELY don’t want to look like I’m trying too hard — there’s nothing less authoritative than a professor who looks like she’s trying to impress someone with her outfit. Don’t want to be “sexy”, but I don’t want to be “dowdy” either. I want to try and calibrate it so that my clothes make a non-impression, basically. Which is, of course, utterly unpossible.

    And holy shit Meredith, that link. “They insisted she was entering an exclusive club in the scientific community: the rare species of sexy scientists with PhDs. To commemorate her achievement, they suggested I compile a top ten list of the hottest, living scientists.” I suppose this probably qualifies as ‘benevolent sexism’, though I personally think it’s quite hostile. I wonder if those women know that they posted that shit.

  4. Sari van Anders says:

    To Stacey Ritz’ first comment: No deliberate attempt to avoid using the term sexism. Sometimes these big cultural problems seem unassailable… but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are. Some efforts do seem to work, including blinding, involving more diverse evaluators, and even explicitly educating people about gender discrimination and sexism. And, good luck with your internal debate over Spanx; being feminist ourselves doesn’t make the rest of the world feminist, and it doesn’t mean we get a ‘get-out-of-sexist-culture-free’ card, unfortunately 🙂

    To Meredith Chivers’ comment: ooyikes to that link! I think it’s key that we diversify the representation of scientists writ large and scientists-who-are-women. If science is culture-free and value-neutral, why are people caring so much about what scientists are *wearing* anyway? Why do we internalize that care? And, how can we-as-scientists enjoy our clothes and appearances as much or as little as we’d like to? It seems clear to me that attempts to remove sexuality from science usually means policing minoritized folks’ bodies and appearances, so usually women, queer men, and/or racialized minorities. And what’s wrong with sexuality, right? So, I think we’re all on the same page, hoping to build a science where people can make appearance choices with fewer social constraints whether that means feeling comfortable looking dowdy OR sexy, and not sensationalizing other people’s choices.

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