Hearing from Tiresias

Reposted from November last year, on The Woman Question again.

November 14, 2010

The old Tiresias trick comes in handy sometimes. The neurobiologist Ben Barres started out as Barbara, and he reports on what it’s like to be an intelligent woman.

The top science and math student in her New Jersey high school, she was advised by her guidance counselor to go to a local college rather than apply to MIT. She applied anyway and was admitted.As an MIT undergraduate, Barbara was one of the only women in a large math class, and the only student to solve a particularly tough problem. The professor “told me my boyfriend must have solved it for me,” recalls Prof. Barres…

Although Barbara Barres was a top student at MIT, “nearly every lab head I asked refused to let me do my thesis research” with him, Prof. Barres says. “Most of my male friends had their first choice of labs. And I am still disappointed about the prestigious fellowship I lost to a male student when I was a Ph.D. student,” even though the rival had published one prominent paper and she had six.

Well…women should just all do the transgender thing; problem solved. Right? Or would that be slightly inconvenient.

Some supporters of the Summers Hypothesis suggest that temperament, not ability, holds women back in science: They are innately less competitive. Prof. Barres’s experience suggests that if women are less competitive, it is not because of anything innate but because that trait has been beaten out of them.

“Female scientists who are competitive or assertive are generally ostracized by their male colleagues,” he says.

And called shrill strident bitches for good measure.



  1. Ken Pidcock says

    I think it’s the case (from an article in Science?) that some 40% of women in the American Physical Society are married to physicists. Even if we were to assume, unrealistically, that these couples give priority to appointment of the woman, her opportunities are still more constrained than those of a physicist, of either gender, who doesn’t have to worry about whether a spouse can also find appointment.

  2. fastlane says

    With my wife finishing her MS and soon applying for her PhD, I am worried when I read things like this. I hope she doesn’t run into too many roadblocks that aren’t at least always there.

    She’s not so much competitive, though, as she is stubborn (I prefer to call her determined…).

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