Thursday, 20 May 2010

Sex and Academe

From That's Western Australia, not Washington state.
What would be remarkably instructive in real life would be if women in various professions could experience life as men, and vice versa. If the same person got treated differently, we would be sure sexism was at work, because the only thing that changed was the sex of the individual and not his or her skills, talent, knowledge, experience, or interests.

Joan Roughgarden and Ben Barres are biologists at Stanford University. Both are researchers at one of the premier academic institutions in the country; both are tenured professors. Both are transgendered people.
As they say, read the whole thing.

For what it's worth - I've noticed no change at the Australian National University. Oh yes, I get talked over etc. Not a big deal in general.
But things changed in large and subtle ways after Barbara became Ben.

Ben once gave a presentation at the prestigious Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A friend relayed a comment made by someone in the audience who didn't know Ben Barres and Barbara Barres were the same person: "Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but, then, his work is much better than his sister's."
"When it comes to bias, it seems that the desire to believe in a meritocracy is so powerful that until a person has experienced sufficient career-harming bias themselves they simply do not believe it exists … By far, the main difference that I have noticed is that people who don't know I am transgendered treat me with much more respect: I can even complete a whole sentence without being interrupted by a man."
At a meeting of the Ecological Society of America in Minneapolis, Joan said, a prominent expert jumped up on the stage after her talk and started shouting at her. Once every month or two, she said, ''I will have some man shout at me, try to physically coerce me into stopping …When I was doing the marine ecology work, they did not try to physically intimidate me and say, 'You have not read all the literature.'

"They would not assume they were smarter. The current crop of objectors assumes they are smarter."

Joan is willing to acknowledge her theory might be wrong; that, after all, is the nature of science. But what she wants is to be proven wrong, rather than dismissed. Making bold and counter-intuitive assertions is precisely the way science progresses. Many bold ideas are wrong, but if there isn't a regular supply of them and if they are not debated seriously, there is no progress. After her transition, Joan said she no longer feels she has "the right to be wrong".

Before her transition, she enjoyed an above-average salary at Stanford. But since her transition, "My own salary has drifted down to the bottom 10 per cent of full professors in the School of Humanities and Sciences, even though my research and students are among the best of my career and are having international impact, albeit often controversial."

I asked her about interpersonal dynamics before and after her transition. "You get interrupted when you are talking, you can't command attention, but above all you can't frame the issues," she said. With a touch of wistfulness, she compared herself to Ben Barres. "Ben has migrated into the centre whereas I have had to migrate into the periphery."
We'll see what happens with my own situation. Maybe it's just that I'm with a bunch of good people. I've had enormous support - and possibly more, rather than less, from those who know my personal history. Accent on the "his".


E said...

I'm now back at university because I found out the reason why a very large proportion of women leave engineering in their 30s: you don't even get a fraction as many interviews as men do. When you do find a job, it's a lower level than a man with less experience.

My experience is that there is a definite difference in how men and women are treated, and that it varies depending on the field of work.

Zoe Brain said...

I think it depends on the society you're in too. Some are more chauvinist than others, and some are more chauvinist in some areas and less in others too.

I think most of Australia has fewer problems in most areas than the USA for example. But I'm certain that some parts of the USA have fewer problems in some areas than anywhere in Australia.

WSR Photography said...

I picked up the difference when I read Joan's book and then the reviews years ago, mostly dismissive than discussions of her ideas. Many biased their review by stating she had a personal "built-in" bias with the subject. When Joan countered with their male bias in evolutionary biology, they called it the scientific perspective. She received similar criticism when discussing her treatment of men and women in academia, but when Ben expressed similar thoughts about his before and after treatment, they nodded in agreement as the male perspective, although the same, was better.

The question the scientists need to ask themselves is if their criticism would be the same if a man's name was on Joan's book and expressed the same theories. But looking in the academic mirror seems difficult if not impossible for some men.