Does Gender Matter?
by Ben A. Barres, Stanford University School of Medicine, Department of Neurobiology
The following article appeared in Nature on
July 13, 2006 (volume 442, pages 113–116)
and is reproduced with permission of the
Nature Publishing Group.
When I was 14 years old, I had an
unusually talented maths teacher. One
day after school, I excitedly pointed
him out to my mother. To my amazement,
she looked at him with shock and said with
disgust: “You never told me that he was black”.
I looked over at my teacher and, for the first
time, realized that he was an African- American.
I had somehow never noticed his skin colour
before, only his spectacular
teaching ability. I would like
to think that my parents’
sincere efforts to teach me
prejudice were unsuccessful.
I don’t know why this lesson
takes for some and not for
others. But now that I am
51, as a female-to-male transgendered
person, I still wonder
about it, particularly when
I hear male gym teachers
telling young boys “not to
be like girls” in that same
Last year, Harvard University
president Larry Summers
suggested that differences in
innate aptitude rather than
discrimination were more
likely to be to blame for the
failure of women to advance
in scientific careers(1). Harvard professor Steven
Pinker then put forth a similar argument in an
online debate(2), and an almost identical view was
elaborated in a 2006 essay by Peter Lawrence
entitled ‘Men, Women and Ghosts in Science’(3).
Whereas Summers prefaced his statements
by saying he was trying to be provocative,
Lawrence did not. Whereas Summers talked
about “different availability of aptitude at the
high end,” Lawrence talked about average
aptitudes differing. Lawrence argued that, even
in a utopian world free of bias, women would
still be under-represented in science because they
are innately different from men.
Lawrence draws from the work of Simon
Baron-Cohen(4) in arguing that males are ‘on
average’ biologically predisposed to systematize,
to analyse and to be more forgetful of others,
whereas females are ‘on average’ innately
designed to empathize, to communicate and to
care for others. He further argues that men are
innately better equipped to aggressively compete
in the ‘vicious struggle to survive’ in science.
Similarly, Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield
states in his new book, Manliness(5), that women
don’t like to compete, are risk adverse, less
abstract and too emotional. I will refer to this
view—that women are not advancing because
of innate inability rather than because of bias
or other factors—as the Larry Summers Hypothesis.
It is a view that seems to have resonated
widely with male, but not female, scientists.
Here, I will argue that available scientific data do
not provide credible support
for the hypothesis but instead
support an alternative one:
that women are not advancing
because of discrimination. You
might call this the ‘Stephen
Jay Gould Hypothesis’ (see
left). I have no desire to make
men into villains (as Henry
Kissinger once said, “Nobody
will ever win the battle of the
sexes; there’s just too much
fraternizing with the enemy”).
As to who the practitioners
of this bias are, I will be
pointing my finger at women
as much as men. I am certain
that all the proponents of the
Larry Summers Hypothesis
are well-meaning and fairminded
people, who agree
that treatment of individuals
should be based on merit
rather than on race, gender
or religion stereotypes.
The sums don’t add up
Like many women and minorities, however,
I am suspicious when those who are at an
advantage proclaim that a disadvantaged group
of people is innately less able. Historically,
claims that disadvantaged groups are innately
inferior have been based on junk science and
intolerance(6). Despite powerful social factors
that discourage women from studying maths
and science from a very young age(7), there is
little evidence that gender differences in maths abilities exist, are innate or are even relevant to
the lack of advancement of women in science(8). A
study of nearly 20,000 maths scores of children
aged 4 to 18, for instance, found little difference
between the genders (Fig. 1)(9), and, despite all
the social forces that hold women back from
an early age, one-third of the winners of the
elite Putnam Math Competition last year were
women. Moreover, differences in maths-test
results are not correlated with the gender divide
between those who choose to leave science(10).
I will explain why I believe that the Larry
Summers Hypothesis amounts to nothing more
than blaming the victim, why it is so harmful to
women, and what can and should be done to help
women advance in science.
If innate intellectual abilities are not to blame
for women’s slow advance in science careers,
then what is? The foremost factor, I believe, is
the societal assumption that women are innately
less able than men. Many studies, summarized
in Virginia Valian’s excellent book Why So
Slow?, have demonstrated a substantial degree
of bias against women—more than is sufficient to
block women’s advancement in many professions.
Here are a few examples of bias from my own
life as a young woman. As an undergrad at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT),
I was the only person in a large class of nearly
all men to solve a hard maths problem, only to
be told by the professor that my boyfriend must
have solved it for me. I was not given any credit.
I am still disappointed about the prestigious
fellowship competition I later lost to a male
contemporary when I was a Ph.D. student, even
though the Harvard dean who had read both
applications assured me that my application
was much stronger (I had published six highimpact
papers whereas my male competitor had
published only one). Shortly after I changed sex,
a faculty member was heard to say “Ben Barres
gave a great seminar today, but then his work is
much better than his sister’s.”
Anecdotes, however, are not data, which is
why gender-blinding studies are so important.
These studies reveal that in many selection
processes, the bar is unconsciously raised so
high for women and minority candidates that
few emerge as winners. For instance, one study
found that women applying for a research grant
needed to be 2.5 times more productive than men
in order to be considered equally competent (Fig.
2)(12). Even for women lucky enough to obtain an
academic job, gender biases can influence the
relative resources allocated to faculty, as Nancy
Hopkins discovered when she and a senior faculty
committee studied this problem at MIT. The data
were so convincing that MIT president Charles
Vest publicly admitted that discrimination was
responsible. For talented women, academia is all
too often not a meritocracy.
Despite these studies, very few men or women
are willing to admit that discrimination is a
serious problem in science. How is that possible?
Valian suggests that we all have a strong desire to
believe that the world is fair.
Remarkably, women are as likely as men
to deny the existence of gender-based bias.
Accomplished women who manage to make it
to the top may ‘pull up the ladder behind them’,
perversely believing that if other women are less
successful, then one’s own
success seems even greater.
Another explanation is
a phenomenon known as ‘denial of personal disadvantage’,
in which women
compare their advancement
with other women rather
than with men.
My own denial of the
situation persisted until last
year, when, at the age of 50,
several events opened my
eyes to the barriers that women
and minorities still face in
academia. In addition to the Summers speech,
the National Institutes of Health (NIH) began
the most prestigious competition they have ever
run, the Pioneer Award, but with a nomination
process that favoured male applicants(14). To their
credit, in response to concerns that 60 of 64
judges and all 9 winners were men, the NIH has
revamped their Pioneer Award selection process
to make it fairer. I hope that the Howard Hughes
Medical Institute (HHMI) will address similar
problems with their investigator competitions.
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.
My main purpose in writing
this commentary is that I would
like female students to feel that
they will have equal opportunity
in their scientific careers. Until
intolerance is addressed, women
will continue to advance only
slowly. Of course, this feeling
is also deeply personal to me
(see ‘Personal experiences’).
The comments of Summers,
Mansfield, Pinker and
Lawrence about women’s lesser
innate abilities are all wrongful
and personal attacks on my
character and capabilities,
as well as on my colleagues’
and students’ abilities and self
esteem. I will certainly not sit around silently and
Mansfield and others claim that women are
more emotional than men. There is absolutely
no science to support this contention. On the
contrary, it is men that commit the most violent
crimes in anger—for example, 25 times more
murders than women. The
only hysteria that exceeded
MIT professor Nancy
Hopkins’ (well-founded) outrage
after Larry Summers’
comments was the shockingly
vicious news coverage
by male reporters and
also received hundreds of
hateful and even pornographic
all from men, that were all
Taboo or untrue?
There is no scientific support, either, for
the contention that women are innately less
competitive (although I believe powerful curiosity
and the drive to create sustain most scientists far
more than the love of competition). However,
many girls are discouraged from sports for fear
of being labelled tomboys. A 2002 study did
find a gender gap in competitiveness in financial
tournaments, but the authors suggested that
this was due to differences in self confidence rather than ability(15). Indeed, again and again,
self confidence has been pointed to as a factor influencing why women ‘choose’ to leave science
and engineering programmes. When women
are repeatedly told they are less good, their self
confidence falls and their ambitions dim. This
is why Valian has concluded that simply raising
expectations for women in science may be the
single most important factor in helping them
make it to the top.
Steven Pinker has responded to critics of the
Larry Summers Hypothesis by suggesting that
they are angry because they feel the idea that
women are innately inferior is so dangerous that
it is sinful even to think about it(17). Harvard Law
School professor Alan Dershowitz sympathizes
so strongly with this view that he plans to teach
a course next year called ‘Taboo’. At Harvard
we must have veritas; all ideas are fair game. I
completely agree. I welcome any future studies that
will provide a better understanding of why women
and minorities are not advancing at the expected
rate in science and so many other professions.
But it is not the idea alone that has sparked
anger. Disadvantaged people are wondering why
privileged people are brushing the truth under
the carpet. If a famous scientist or a president
of a prestigious university is going to pronounce
in public that women are likely to be innately
inferior, would it be too much to ask that they
be aware of the relevant data? It would seem that
just as the bar goes way up for women applicants
in academic selection processes, it goes way
down when men are evaluating the evidence for
why women are not advancing in science. That is
why women are angry. It is incumbent upon those
proclaiming gender differences in abilities to
rigorously address whether suspected differences
are real before suggesting that a whole group of
people is innately wired to fail.
What happens at Harvard and other
universities serves as a model for many other
institutions, so it would be good to get it right.
To anyone who is upset at the thought that
free speech is not fully protected on university
campuses, I would like to ask, as did third-year
Harvard Law student Tammy Pettinato: what is
the difference between a faculty member calling
their African-American students lazy and one
pronouncing that women are innately inferior?
Some have suggested that those who are angry
at Larry Summers’ comments should simply fight
words with more words (hence this essay). In my
view, when faculty tell their students that they are
innately inferior based on race, religion, gender
or sexual orientation, they are crossing a line that
should not be crossed—the line that divides free
speech from verbal violence—and it should not
be tolerated at Harvard or anywhere else. In a
culture where women’s abilities are not respected,
women cannot effectively learn, advance, lead or
participate in society in a fulfilling way.
Although I have argued that the Larry
Summers Hypothesis is incorrect and harmful,
the academic community is one of the most
tolerant around. But, as tolerant as academics
are, we are still human beings influenced by our
culture. Comments by Summers and others have
made it clear that discrimination remains an
under-recognized problem that is far from solved.
The progress of science increasingly depends on
the global community, but only 10% of the world’s
population is male and caucasian. To paraphrase
Martin Luther King, a first-class scientific
enterprise cannot be built upon a foundation of
second-class citizens. If women and minorities are
to achieve their full potential, all of us need to be
far more proactive. So what can be done?
First, enhance leadership diversity in academic
and scientific institutions. Diversity provides a
substantially broader point of view, with more
sensitivity and respect for different perspectives,
which is invaluable to any organization. More
female leadership is vital in lessening the hostile
working environment that young women scientists
often encounter. In addition to women and underrepresented
minority groups, we must not forget
Asians and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered
folks. There are enough outstanding scientific
leaders in these racial and gender groups that
anyone with a will to achieve a diverse leadership
in their organization could easily attain it.
Second, the importance of diverse faculty role
models cannot be overstated. There is much talk
about equal opportunity, but, in practice, serious
attention still needs to be directed at how to run
fair job searches. Open searches often seem to
be bypassed entirely for top leadership positions,
just when it matters most—search committees
should not always be chaired by men and the
committee itself should be highly diverse(14,18).
Implementation of special hiring strategies and
strong deans willing to push department chairs
to recruit top women scientists are especially
effective. It is crucial in the promotion process
that merit be decided by the quality, not quantity,
of papers published.
Women faculty, in particular, need help from
their institutions in balancing career and family
responsibilities. In an increasingly competitive
environment, women with children must be able
to compete for funding and thrive. Why can’t
young faculty have the option of using their
tuition benefits, in which some universities pay
part of the college tuition fees for the children
of faculty, for day care instead? Tuition benefits
will be of no help if female scientists don’t maketenure. And institutions that have the financial
capability, such as HHMI, could help by making
more career transition fellowships available for
talented women scientists.
Third, there should be less silence in the
face of discrimination. Academic leadership has
a particular responsibility to speak out, but we
all share this responsibility. It takes minimal
effort to send a brief message to the relevant
authority when you note a lack of diversity in
an organization or an act of discrimination. I
don’t know why more women don’t speak out
about sexism at their institutions, but I do know
that they are often reluctant, even when they
have the security of a tenured faculty position.
Nancy Hopkins is an admirable role model, and
it is time that others share the burden. It doesn’t
only have to be women that support women. I
was deeply touched by the eloquent words of
Greg Petsko(19) following Summers’ comments.
And it has been 30 years since I was a medical
student, but I still recall with gratitude the young
male student who immediately complained to a
professor who had shown a slide of a nude pin-up
in his anatomy lecture.
Fourth, enhance fairness in competitive
selection processes. Because of evaluation
bias, women and minorities are at a profound
disadvantage in such competitive selection unless
the processes are properly designed(11,12,14,18). As
the revamped NIH Pioneer Award demonstrates,
a few small changes can make a significant
difference in outcome. By simply changing the
procedure so that anyone can self-nominate
and by ensuring a highly diverse selection
committee, the number of women and minority
winners went up to more than 50% from zero.
This lesson can and should now be applied to
other similar processes for scientific awards,
grants and faculty positions. Alas, too many
selection committees still show a striking lack of
diversity—with typically greater than 90% white
males. When selection processes are run fairly,
reverse discrimination is not needed to attain a
Finally, we can teach young scientists how
to survive in a prejudiced world. Self-confidence
is crucial in advancing and enjoying a research
career. From an early age, girls receive messages
that they are not good enough to do science
subjects or will be less liked if they are good at
them. The messages come from many sources,
including parents, friends, fellow students
and, alas, teachers. When teachers have lower
expectations of them, students do less well. But
we are all at fault for sending these messages
and for remaining silent when we encounter
them. Teachers need to provide much more
encouragement to young people, regardless of
sex, at all stages of training. Occasional words of
encouragement can have enormous effects.
All students, male and female, would benefit
from training in how to be more skillful presenters,
to exert a presence at meetings by asking questions,
to make connections with faculty members who
may help them to obtain grants and a job, and
to have the leadership skills necessary
to survive and advance in academia.
Because women and minorities tend to
be less confident in these areas, their
mentors in particular need to encourage
them to be more proactive. I vividly recall
my Ph.D. supervisor coming with me to
the talks of famous scientists and forcing
me to introduce myself and to ask them
questions. There is a great deal of hallway
mentoring that goes on for young men
that I am not sure many women and
minorities receive (I wish that someone
had mentioned to me when I was younger
that life, even in science, is a popularity
contest—a message that Larry Summers might
have found helpful as well). It is incumbent on all
of us who are senior faculty to keep a look out for
highly talented young people, including women
and minority students, and help them in whatever
way possible with their careers.
(1) Summers, L. Letter to the Faculty Regarding NBER Remarks www.president.harvard.edu/speeches/summers/2005/facletter.html (2005)
(2) The Science of Gender and Science. Pinker vs. Spelke: A Debate www.edge.org/3rd_culture/
(3) Lawrence, P. A. PLoS Biol. 4, 13–15 (2006).
(4) Baron-Cohen, S. The Essential Difference: Men, Women, and the Extreme Male Brain
(Allen Lane, London, 2003).
(5) Mansfield, H. Manliness (Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, 2006).
(6) Gould, S. J. The Mismeasure of Man(W. W. Norton & Co, New York, 1996).
(7) Steele, C. M. Am. Psychol. 52, 613–629 (1997).
(8) Spelke, E. S. Am. Psychol. 60, 950–958 (2005).
(9) Leahey, E. & Guo, G. Soc. Forces 80.2, 713–732 (2001).
(10) Xie, Y. & Shauman, K. Women in Science: Career Processes and Outcomes (Harvard
Univ. Press, Cambridge, 2003).
(11) Valian, V. Why So Slow? (MIT Press, Cambridge, 1998).
(12) Wennerås, C. & Wold, A. Nature 387, 341–343 (1997).
(13) Rhode, D. L. Speaking of Sex: The Denial of Gender Inequality (Harvard Univ. Press,
(14) Carnes, M. et al. J. Womens Health 14, 684–691 (2005).
(15) Gneezy, U., Niederle, M. & Rustichini, A. Q. J. Econ. 18, 1049–1074 (2003).
(16) Fels, A. Necessary Dreams (Pantheon Press, New York, 2004).
(17) Pinker, S. New Repub. 15 (14 Feb, 2005).
(18) Moody, J. Faculty Diversity: Problems and Solutions (Taylor and Francis, New York, 2004).
(19) Petsko, G. A. Genome Biol. 6, 1–3 (2005).
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