If anyone doubts that young women face discouragement because of their gender, consider Barbara Barres, who was a prominent female neurobiologist at Stanford University.
Early in her studies as a student at MIT, Barres had solved a tough math problem. Rather than praise her for her work, her professor remarked, “Your boyfriend must have solved it for you.” This was a typical response to her efforts.
When she was diagnosed with breast cancer in her 40s, Barres decided not only to have a double mastectomy, but to change gender. Being a woman had been a lifelong agony for her on many levels, and she didn’t want to spend the rest of her life as a woman.
Today, Ben Barres is chairman of the Neurobiology Department at Stanford University School of Medicine, and a top-drawer scientist by any measure. Thus Barres has had the rare experience of living both as a woman and a man, genuinely undercover in all kinds of scientific circles and situations.
To his surprise, Barres found that living as a man has dramatically changed the way that people react to him. “Shortly after I changed sexes, I gave a seminar about my research at MIT. One of my friends told me that afterward, as they were leaving, one of his colleagues said, ‘Gee, that Ben Barres’s work is so much better than his sister Barbara’s!’”
Society treats men and women differently solely based on their gender, Barres attests. He knows this because he’s lived it.
“In general, society assumes a man is competent until proven otherwise,” Barres says, “and a woman is considered incompetent until proven otherwise. This creates terribly unfair barriers for talented women in science.”
Barres now devotes time to helping women get a foothold in science and technology.
I’d love to hear from you about your experiences. If you’re a woman in these fields, what kind of attitude do/did people have toward your work? And what kind of gender bias have you seen regarding the girls in your life?
Thank you for sharing.