Ben Barres: On Science and Sexism

Every May, the UCSD Neurosciences Graduate Program gathers students and faculty at a conference center on beautiful Lake Arrowhead for a weekend retreat of science and socialization. This spring, our keynote research speaker was Dr. Ben Barres of Stanford University. After a successful first day, a roomful of neuroscientisttwitter1s eagerly awaited Dr. Ben Barres’ keynote talk, ready to ingest some undoubtedly exceptional research by one of the world’s leading experts on glia. The neuron’s underappreciated and overworked cousins, glia represent 90% of the cells in your brain, and researching these cells is a fascinating and burgeoning field of study (for example). Needless to say, it came as a surprise to all when, 15 minutes into his lecture, Dr. Barres dropped a bomb of provocative insight totally unrelated to cells in the brain. After introducing a series of experiments with a picture of the female post-doc who conducted that research, he digressed, “When I talk about talented women in science, I like to point out some things, and since I have you all trapped on the top of this mountain…I would like to talk about the many barriers women face in science.”

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Lots of Twitter love for Ben Barres at #UCSDNeuroRetreat

Even before he spoke at our retreat, there was plenty of reason to have an insane amount of admiration and respect for Dr. Barres – we at NeuWrite openly identify as “total fangirls” (and fanboys!) and other neuro grad students have been heard to say the same. Dr. Barres is a brilliant scientist in many, many ways. He received his Bachelor’s degree from MIT, a medical degree from Dartmouth, and a PhD from Harvard. He is now the Chair of Neurobiology at Stanford Medical School. His many achievements include the McKnight Investigator Award, the Kaiser Award for Excellence in Teaching, and membership in the US National Academy of Sciences. He’s a champion for glia, and has published paper after paper of groundbreaking neuroscientific research, as well as new and exciting techniques for use in the field. But beyond all of his scientific achievement, which alone should make him a household name, Dr. Barres is openly transgender, and uses his experiences as both a woman and a man in science to inform his activism on women and diversity in the sciences.

Science still tends to be perceived as a “man’s world” (1), and women frequently face hostility in the lab environment. Ben, who was born Barbara, began facing these challenges even before he began his undergraduate career at MIT, when his guidance counselor discouraged him from applying to the elite tech school. At MIT, despite high marks in classes and impressive research credentials, he faced sexist attitudes from students and faculty alike. After solving a difficult math problem that had stumped many other (male) students, he was accused of having a boyfriend solve it for him. In another instance, he saw a research award go to a far less qualified male student, despite having been told by faculty that his (Ben’s) application was the stronger one (2). Despite these challenges, his talents and hard work got him all the way to a tenured position at Stanford in 1993. By 1997, he was able to recognize his gender dysphoria and realized he was no longer capable of living as a woman. After 40 years of feeling like he was living as the wrong sex, he finally underwent surgery and began openly living as a man (3). Since then, Dr. Barres has remained a champion for women in science, pointing to his own experiences of sexism and the dramatic changes in his reception after his transition to drive home his points.

In 2006, Dr. Barres came into the spotlight when he responded to comments made by the then-president  of Harvard University, Lawrence Summers. During a talk, Summers made the claim that the reason there are fewer women scientists has less to do with sexism and bias and more to do with men’s “inherent ability” to do science. This was followed shortly afterward by other high-profile faculty making similar claims, including linguist Stephen Pinker and Peter Lawrence. In response, Dr. Barres wrote a commentary titled “Does Gender Matter?“, published in Nature magazine (4). Several key points Dr. Barres made include the fact that boys and girls don’t show significant differences in their math scores (5), and the fact that studies have shown significant bias against women in science (6,7). Beyond that, Dr. Barres offered suggestions on how to counteract this bias, including enhancing diversity of leaders at prestigious research universities, more support for female scientists, and revamping nomination and award systems to ensure that bias against women and minorities would be reduced to even the playing field. Part of supporting female scientists includes creating safe, productive work environments with good mentors to allow women and other diverse minority trainees and faculty to succeed. In 2013, Dr. Barres wrote a piece titled “How to pick a graduate advisor” (8), in which he expressed his view that good mentorship is key to success in a scientific career and provided advice for new graduate students to help them choose an advisor. He described resources for identifying faculty who are good scientists, such as the H-index to determine their publication impact and the NIH grant database to determine their success at receiving funding. Perhaps even more importantly, he detailed how to determine if a potential advisor will make a good mentor. Dr. Barres emphasized that mentorship is a two-way street; students should be honest with themselves about their needs, being willing to make changes if necessary and working with their advisor to choose a good project. As is typical, he also promoted solutions to some of the problems faced by students, such as suggesting an alternative to the H-Index called the “M-Index” to demonstrate a faculty member’s mentoring ability.

Given all of his outspoken activism and thoughtful, progressive ideas on how to improve the situation for women in science, it’s apparent that Dr. Barres is as enthusiastic about this issue as he is about his research. Thus, it should not have been surprising when he suspended his talk on reactive astrocytes during our retreat to talk about the issue of women in science. Impressively, it was not at all a digressive rant but rather an earnest call to action. He even had slides prepared, imbedded in his astrocytes lecture, outlining the four main barriers that he sees women face in science.


Ben Barres came prepared!

First, he addressed the challenges and discrimination faced by women who are under pressure to make significant strides in careers at the same time that they are likely having children. It is typically in their thirties that aspiring academics are able to procure faculty jobs, yet even when they do, they must be productive and successful in order to obtain tenure (the peak of the academic summit). However, it is at this treacherous part of the climb that women are under substantial biological and social pressure to start having children. This is important because married women with children are 35% less likely than their male counterparts to attain tenure-track academic jobs and 27% less likely to ultimately achieve tenure even when they have tenure-track jobs, whereas single women are about as successful as men (9). Thus, the 2009 report that reported these findings concluded that family formation accounts for the most significant leak of women from the PhD to tenure-track pipeline. Although this seems like a difficult problem to combat, Dr. Barres offered two simple solutions. First, he argued for better child support and maternity leave options for female academics. However, his second proposed solution was more drastic but in some ways even better; he called for eliminating “tenure-track” jobs in favor of automatic tenure for young faculty. Not only would this reduce some of the leakage in female faculty and ameliorate the combined pressure of struggling to achieve tenure while simultaneously starting to raise a family, he argued that tenure-track jobs are detrimental to academic science as a whole because it forces young faculty to be risk-averse at a time when they should be taking big risks in order to move the field forward. This proposal met with resounding enthusiasm from the crowd.

Second, Dr. Barres addressed the issue of neurosexism that he has been so outspoken against, arguing that even today, there exist both implicit and explicit biases (coming from both men and women) in favor of men in science. Some of this is related to the previous issue of women balancing their careers with raising a family (he said himself that he still hears older faculty outrightly express concern over hiring female post-docs because they “might have babies”), but some of it still stems from a stubborn and unfounded belief that fewer women succeed in academic science because they are less competent.

Third, male scientists at the top of their field – who often hold the greatest influence over filling the limited number of academic job openings – are much less likely to mentor female than male post-docs. A recent study of over 2000 faculty members in the life sciences found that male PIs (but not female PIs) tended to have more male than female post-docs and graduate students, and the disparity was even greater for male PIs who were funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), elected to the National Academy of Sciences, or had won another research award (10, Fig. 1). This disparity was most severe for Nobel laureates, who had only 24% female postdocs and 36% female graduate students on average. Unfortunately, the authors found that this exacerbated deficit of female employees in high-profile labs is particularly detrimental to their careers because labs that are producing postdocs who go on to get assistant professorships – many of which are high-profile labs as described above – are training fewer female postdocs (Fig. 2). Since this represents such a substantial barrier for women in science, Dr. Barres argued that trainee diversity ought to be made a key criterion for grants being awarded to these major labs.


Fig 1: Elite biological laboratories led by male but not female faculty employ disproportionately fewer female post-docs and graduate students (10)


Fig 2: Labs that are most successful in feeding the pool of assistant professors are training fewer female post-docs (true of labs led by both men and women) (10)

Finally, Dr. Barres raised the issue of sexual harassment and how that presents a significant barrier to women in science. In particular, he expressed utter disdain at the rampant sexual harassment and displays of sexism that plague many prominent science meetings (such as at the Society for Neuroscience meeting), literally scolding the audience, “What is wrong with men? What is wrong with you guys? STOP DOING THAT!”. Since these sorts of meetings are made possible by federally-funded grants, Dr. Barres argued fervently that sexual harassment policies need to be added to these meetings. Moreover, the agencies supplying the grants (NIH, NSF, etc.) ought to require adherence to Title IX, and if sexual harassment occurs at any of these meetings, these agencies ought to withdraw their support.

When Dr. Barres concluded this portion of his talk and launched right back into reactive astrocytes, the room burst into applause. By the end of his talk, we were in awe not only of him as a scientist but also as an individual, a mentor, and an activist. It speaks volumes that a leading neuroscientist will take time away from his science to discuss an issue dear to his heart and to many of us sitting in the audience. The field of neuroscience is incredibly lucky to have someone like Ben Barres who is willing to use his scientific influence and unique perspective from living as both a man and a woman to speak out against people and policies that promote sexism in science. Importantly, he does more than just point out what’s wrong; for each of his points, he offered concrete suggestions for change (and assured us that he has already written multiple letters to NIH director Francis Collins). As burgeoning young neuroscientists, we can at least speak for ourselves when we say that we left Dr. Barres’ talk frustrated by the barriers facing women in science. Still, we were optimistic for change to come, knowing that Dr. Barres and those like him are leading the charge and inspiring young scientists to be open and proud of who they are.

Alie Caldwell is a second-year student in the UCSD Neurosciences Graduate Program. She works under Dr. Nicola Allen studying the roles of astrocyte-secreted factors in synapse formation using mouse models of neurodevelopmental disorders. She creates educational neuroscience YouTube videos on her channel NeuroTransmissions and can be found on Twitter at @alie_astrocyte

Megan Kirchgessner is a first-year student in the UCSD Neurosciences Graduate Program currently doing a research rotation at the UCSD Autism Center of Excellence. Outside of neuroscience, she enjoys running, listening to weird music, eating excessive amounts of carbs, alternating between watching independent films and ridiculous comedies, and stalking the La Jolla Cove sea lions.

  1. Miller, David I. and Eagly, Alice H. (2014). “Women’s Representation in Science Predicts National Gender-Science Stereotypes: Evidence From 66 Nations”. Journal of Educational Psychology. 1-13.
  2. Dean, Cornelia. (2006). “Dismissing ‘Sexist Opinions’ About Women’s Place in Science”. The New York Times.
  3. Maddox, Sam. (2013). “Barres elected to the National Academy of Sciences”. Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation.
  4. Barres, Ben A. (2006). “Does Gender Matter?” Nature. 442, 133-136.
  5. Leahey, Erin & Guo, Guang. (2001).  “Gender Differences in Mathematical Trajectories”. Social Forces. 80:2, 713-732
  6. Xie, Yu & Shaumann, Kimberlee A. (2003). Women in Science: Career Processes and Outcomes. Harvard University Press.
  7. Moss-Racusin, Corinne A. et. al. (2012). “Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students”. PNAS. 109:41, 16474-16479.
  8. Barres, Ben A. (2013). “How to pick a graduate advisor”. Neuron. 80:2, 275-279.
  9. Goulden, M., Frasch, K., Mason, M.A., & The Center for American Progress (2009). Staying competitive: Patching America’s leaky pipeline in the sciences. Berkeley Center on Health, Economic, & Family Security. 1-48.
  10. Sheltzer, J.M. & Smith, J.C. (2014). Elite male faculty in the life sciences employ fewer women. PNAS. 111:28, 10107-10112.