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Does Gender Matter?

by Ben A. Barres, Stanford University School of Medicine, Department of Neurobiology

January 2007

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 derogatory tone.


Hypothesis testing

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.


In denial


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 endure them.

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 commentators. Hopkins also received hundreds of
hateful and even pornographic messages, nearly all from men, that were all highly emotional.

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.


Take action


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.


Speak out


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 fair outcome.


Confidence booster


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.

 

REFERENCES

(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/
debate05/debate05_index.html (2005)
.
(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, Cambridge, 1997).
(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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