A transgender perspective on the Larry Summers fracas

Now a man, a Stanford neurologist criticizes hurdles facing women in math and science.

Published July 13, 2006 7:02PM (EDT)

Let's be clear: It would be naive to think that yesterday's release of a searing critique of the obstacles facing women in math and science fields -- by someone with firsthand experience on both sides of the gender divide, no less -- will have any cooling effect whatsoever on the debate that has been at a roiling boil ever since Larry Summers' "intrinsic aptitude" comment. If anything, it adds sparks to the fire.

Already, Stanford neurologist Ben Barres, who underwent a sex change at age 42, is being called a "political fruitcake," by Harvey C. Mansfield, and accused of reducing "science to Oprah," by Steven Pinker, the Boston Globe reports. Barres' critique was published in the scientific journal Nature, and took sharp jabs at Pinker, a Harvard cognitive scientist, and Peter Lawrence, a biologist at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England.

In his critique, Barres notes, unsurprisingly, that his transformation into a man revealed previously stifled attitudes toward gender differences in the field. Then again, they weren't always so successfully hidden, he says. As a female undergrad at MIT, Barres beat her male colleagues to the solution to a perplexing math problem, only to have her professor comment that her boyfriend must have solved it for her.

After Barres' sex change, a clueless colleague remarked on the high quality of his work, noting that it was "much better than his sister's." Post-sex change, Barres has also found that he receives much more respect (from those who do not know his transgender status) and can "even complete a whole sentence without being interrupted by a man," according to the Washington Post. Those ignorant of his sex change have given him an interesting peek into the boys club: "I had a conversation with a male surgeon and he told me he had never met a woman surgeon who was as good as a man," Barres said.

But of course, this hasn't convinced everyone of the foremost importance of first tackling sex discrimination in the field. The debate over women's innate abilities still rages on. And to be clear, Barres doesn't actually dispute the existence of sex differences. His concern is with how sex differences are measured and whether the results can actually address the age-old "nature vs. nurture" question. "Does anyone doubt if you study harder you will do better on a test? The mere existence of an IQ difference does not say it is innate," Barres said. "Why do Asian girls do better on math tests than American boys? No one thinks they are innately better."

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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