WEDNESDAY, July 12, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- When former Harvard University President Larry Summers voiced the opinion last year that women might be intellectually inferior to men when it comes to math and science, he touched off a nationwide firestorm of controversy.
Now, Stanford University professor of neurobiology Dr. Ben Barres is wading into the fray with an essay in this week's Nature, contending that women are just as scientifically inclined as men -- if given a level playing field and the chance to shine.
He should know: Ten years ago, as Barbara Barres, this M.D. and Ph.D. made the decision to undergo hormone therapy and begin living as a man.
In his provocative essay, Does Gender Matter?, Ben Barres contends that it does -- that the attitude of others in the sciences changed toward him soon after he made the switch.
"The main difference that I have noticed is that people who don't know that I am transgendered treat me with much more respect," he writes. "I can even complete a whole sentence without being interrupted by a man."
That fundamental lack of respect for women is what Barres, 51, believes drives the relatively low representation of females in the world of science -- not any innate genetic inability.
For many girls, these stereotypes and stigmas may keep them from pursuing a career they might love and excel in, according to Barres. "From an early age, girls receive the messages that they are not good enough to do science subjects or will be less liked if they are good at it," he writes. "The messages come from many sources, including parents, friends, fellow students and, alas, teachers."
As a young girl, and then as a young female college student and academic, Barres said he felt the sting of discrimination first hand. While an undergrad at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the female Barres was the only person in a class full of men to solve a particularly tough math problem. The professor remarked that Barbara's "boyfriend must have solved it for [her]." And as a grad student at Harvard, Barbara Barres was passed over for a prestigious fellowship in favor of a male applicant who had published just one-sixth as many scientific papers as she had.
Finally, Barres remembers that, "Shortly after I changed sex, a faculty member was heard to say, 'Ben Barres gave such a great seminar today, but then his work is much better than his sister's.' "
The essay resonated with Marianne LaFrance, a Yale professor of psychology and women's gender and sexuality studies. Her work has long focused on how being born male or female affects careers.
"The thing that's so terrific about this essay is precisely that he's a transgendered person," she said. LaFrance pointed out that Barbara and Ben Barres are exactly the same person -- in terms of their talent, creativity and intellect -- and yet Ben gets much more immediate respect from his peers than Barbara ever could.
"It raises lots of questions about just where is gender? It seems to be much more in the mind of the perceiver than it is in the person who's being perceived," LaFrance said.
But Larry Summers, too, quickly found allies within academia after his speech in January 2005. A Harvard colleague, Professor Harvey Mansfield, published a book titled Manliness, in which he contended that women naturally shy away from competition and are risk-averse and overly emotional, compared to men. And British molecular biologist Peter Lawrence also penned a widely read essay in which he claimed that, even in a perfect world, women's innate deficiencies in scientific aptitude would leave them trailing men.
But Barres, who is also professor of developmental biology, neurology and neurological sciences at Stanford, cited the data on the issue. He noted that a study of math tests taken by nearly 20,000 American children aged 4 to 18 showed nearly identical scores by gender.
"And despite all the social forces that hold women back from an early age, still one-third of the winners of the elite Putnam Math Competition last year were women," Barres said.
LaFrance agreed. "Most of the evidence that we have suggests very strongly that the differences between men and women in most things are pretty small, and if you provide men and women with the same educational opportunities, lo and behold, those differences all but disappear," she said.
She pointed out that these disparities have continued to shrink as society slowly becomes more open to the idea of female excellence in the sciences.
"Now, if we're seeing real changes like that, that suggests that [the differences] are not genetic, because we know that genetic changes don't occur in just a matter of decades," LaFrance said.
"It also suggests," LaFrance added, "that if you provide the opportunities and the support structure and various other kinds of arrangements that prohibit discrimination, then you're going to get good scientists who are men -- and good scientists who are women."
To learn more, visit the Association for Women in Science.