mardi, juillet 18, 2006

The Ole Boys Club for the 21st Century

The discourse surrounding the exclusion (both implicit and explicit) of women in the sciences is not an untouched subject. Its topical importance has vacillated over the past few decades, becoming a "hot topic" when former president of Harvard Lawrence Summers remarked that "there are issues of intrinsic aptitude" when probed as to why there were so few women receiving tenure in science. The topic is heating up again as Ben Barres, a 51 year old leading neurologist and tenured professor at Stanford, is publicly disavowing the glass ceiling that prohibits many women to getting to his position. Dr. Barres has accomplished much, for lack of a better word, in his life. He received a B.S. from M.I.T., an M.D. from Dartmouth and a Ph.D from Harvard and, about a decade ago, officially went from Barbara to Ben. Dr. Ben Barres is a female to male transgender who has become an outspoken proponent against discrimination and glass ceilings in science.

Today, the New York Times published a conversation it had with Dr. Barres and he recounts a particularly infuriating instance of sexism when he was at M.I.T.

"An M.I.T. professor accused me of cheating on this test. I was the only one in the class who solved a particular problem, and he said my boyfriend must have solved it for me. One, I did not have a boyfriend. And two, I solved it myself, goddamn it! But it did not occur to me to think of sexism. I was just indignant that I would be accused of cheating. Then later I was in a prestigious competition. I was doing my Ph.D. at Harvard, which would nominate one person. It came down to me and one other graduate student, and a dean pulled me aside and said, “I have read both applications, and it’s going to be you; your application is so much better.” Not only did I not win, the guy got it, but he dropped out of science a year later. But even then I did not think of sexism".

It struck me that Dr. Barres did not think of these instances at the time as sexist, given his obvious intelligence, and apparently it struck the interviewer as well. She asked him why and this is the answer he gave,

"Women who are really highly successful, they are just as bad as the men. They think if they can do it, anyone can do it. They don’t see that for every woman who makes it to the top there are 10 more who are passed over. And I am not making this up, that’s what the data show. And it may be that some women — and African-Americans, too — identify less strongly with their particular group. From the time I was a child, from the littlest, littlest age, I did not identify as a girl. It never occurred to me that I could not be a scientist because I was a woman. It just rolled off my back. Now I wonder, maybe I just didn’t take these stereotypes so seriously because I did not identify myself as a woman"

Class, issues of self-identitification, social responsibility to one's social group and individual vs. community are age old conflicts that Dr. Barres has spoken about. Does class advantage and/or personal success for individuals that belong to groups that have been historically oppressed systematically strip away social responsibility to those who have been left behind? Dr. Barres says the data illustrates this as fact. I have to find that data to see if this statement holds up. I suppose that what he's saying does have a ring of truth to it as disappointing as that may be. I've always had a soft spot for and given a bit of slack to Blacks, women, Latino/as, etc. that have ascended to positions of power because I know to do so inevitably means the lost of parts of one's self (i.e. "the shuck and jive dance) but only a little bit of slack.

Of course, to get into the White House, you can't proudly proclaim "Black Power" but at the same time you don't have to completely leave behind or institute policies against your own people. Its a double edged sword. In saying this, women (and Blacks, Latino/as, etc.) are in a precarious position. Ascending to the top positions in any field and/or institution that is notorious for its lack of diversity is challenging, excrutiatingly difficult, and painful. There are perhaps part of your selves that will not recuperate (or at least be permanently damaged) from the struggle. Nonetheless, becoming a co-consiprator is just as heinous. I believe what Dr. Barres is doing is important -- using his position and clout as a platform to advocate for those who don't have the same privilege. Not only is he advocating but he is also actively in the midst of instituting policies that benefit women, such as day-care facilities for graduate students in the sciences.

And what does all this talk about "intrinsic aptitude" and "natural ability" mean? Whenever I hear those phrases I cringe. Talent is only a small part of success. Access to resources and opportunities, hard work, and support systems are critical. Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan didn't just wake up one day and be brilliant athletes. Sure they have talent but their talent was cultivated over time amidst much hard work and support. So arguments using intrinsic ability as evidence should be promptly eviserated. Still, women and people of color have a long way to go when it comes to tenured positions in the sciences at universities around the country. But tis important to remember that when you reach the top you make the decision to take others with you.

otiose -- adj: 1. Ineffective; futile 2. Being at leisure; lazy; indolent; idle 3. Of no use

Music begins to atrophy when it departs too far from the dance... poetry begins to atrophy when it gets too far from music -- Ezra Pound