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The Loss of a Prominent Neuroscientist and Advocate for Women in Science

tea light candle in holderI was saddened to read that Ben Barres, M.D., Ph.D., had died recently. His obituary in the New York Times is worth reading.

Ben was a highly respected neuroscientist and chair of the department of neurobiology at Stanford from 2008 until last year, when he got sick. But he was also a highly effective spokesperson on behalf of women and minorities in science. I had the good fortune to have met him.

In 2005―representing HIV researchers―I sat on a committee chaired by Ben to conduct interviews of Pioneer Award finalists. Introduced in 2004, the Pioneer Award is a five-year, $3.5 million award for scientists with high-risk but highly innovative research proposals that are unlikely to be funded under standard National Institutes of Health mechanisms. The projects were fascinating, but I hadn’t realized that all the finalists were men until Ben mentioned it. However, there were several women on the committee. I now wonder if Ben had something to do with that. The committee’s composition made more sense when he took us out to lunch and told us his story.

A transgender man, Ben obtained his education and training, ending with a Ph.D., at Harvard when he was female and known as Barbara. He transitioned to Ben before moving across the country to Stanford. For years, people at Stanford did not know he was a transgender male. He became privy to many conversations among his male colleagues in which denigrating and prejudicial attitudes were voiced about women. Having experienced academic life as Barbara, he thought there was bias against women, but when he became Ben he confirmed it. For example, after a research presentation by a woman, he would often hear colleagues talk about her appearance, but not her research. This occurred at the time that Lawrence Summers, the president of Harvard University, sounded off about innate gender differences that, he said, rendered women less fit for the upper echelons of science.

Following his transition, Ben focused on a specific and important area—the advancement of women and minorities in medicine and research—noting how slowly women were attaining leadership positions. The American Academy of Medical Colleges reports show that women and minorities are overrepresented at lower academic ranks and underrepresented as department chairs compared to white men. Drilling down from this 10,000-foot view has merit.

In our conversation, Ben noted that as a man he was interrupted a lot less often in meetings. He pinpointed a problem that permeates many different work environments, including the United States Senate (as when Kamala Harris was stymied in her questioning of Jeff Sessions in June 2017). Even the Supreme Court is not exempt from this issue. A remarkably in-depth, long-term research study by two lawyers, Tanja Jacobi and Dylan Schweers, reported that female Supreme Court justices are significantly more likely to be interrupted in the course of oral arguments by fellow justices and also by lawyers arguing before the court. These interruptions, according to linguists Don H. Zimmerman and Candace West, are more than rudeness; they are linked to a pattern of language that reflects a social order of male dominance.

This arena is uncomfortable, just as is working with our own implicit biases. It is likely that gender-based power dynamics at the level of individuals and groups, while in part based on implicit bias, are also routine and explicit, even in academia. It is heartening that female justices have learned over time how to reduce interruptions—but still never enough to extinguish the behavior in their male counterparts. To adapt and change, it will take work by men and women.

Ben had a unique perspective, and his insights were important and prescient.

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