Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Review: "Does Gender Matter?"

Thanks to Seda for recently passing along to me Ben Barres' Nature article "Does gender matter?"

I believe you need a subscription to read this online. Nonetheless, I have tried to write a review that will be interesting even to those who have not read the article. Oh, also, like many of my "reviews" here, I suppose this post is more of an exploration of the article and less of a review. Details shmetails.

On the first page of the article, Barres provides a quote which underscores his entire article:

"Few tragedies can be more extensive than the stunting of life, few injustices deeper than the denial of an opportunity to strive or even to hope, by a limit imposed from without, but falsely identified as lying within." - Stephen Jay Gould

Using this quote as a backdrop, Barres argues that women are not advancing in science because of discrimination, and not because of innate differences in ability between females and males. Of what he calls the "Larry Summers Hypothesis," Barres points out that "[d]espite powerful social factors that discourage women from studying maths and science from a very young age, 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." In fact, he continues, it is "the societal assumption that women are innately less able than men" that is the "foremost factor" explaining women's slow advances in maths and science.

I know. This line of argumentation is not exactly a Startling Feminist Revelation to those of us living in Harpyville. Even before the issue of ladies in math and science was deemed important enough to ever be studied, the gentlemen in charge often opined that women lacked innate abilities to do much of anything important that did not involve their wombs. Then, based on their unstudied opinions, they excluded women from manly adventures in the public sphere for many many years. Given this historical exclusion of women, feminists have been pointing out for eons that it comes as no surprise that (a) many men suffer from a sense of illusory superiority and (b) men and women often lend the White Male Voice a heavy, yet undeserved, authority over the voices of others.

And so it is that, even though feminists say these things and take the likes of Larry Summers to task all the time, it matters that scientific men like Ben Barres publicly come to similar conclusions.

Furthermore, Barres has done more than read the studies, which he rightly suggests all people do before "suggesting that a whole group of people is innately wired to fail." He has had professional and academic experiences as both a man and a woman. As a transgender man, he is the perfect sample for a study on precisely the discrimination that women allege all that time but that many men do not acknowledge or take seriously. Within his article, he recounts his experiences in academia as a woman where, after having solved a difficult math problem his teacher refuse to give him credit because his "boyfriend" must have solved it. He, as a woman, lost a prestigious fellowship to a male contemporary despite having an application that the dean deemed "much stronger" than her competitor's.

I would be interested in learning about more such experiences of his. Given that, as Barres notes, "women are as likely as men to deny the existence of gender-based bias," I wonder what instances of bias occur in my own life that I do not notice. Many women, including feminists, are complicit in their own oppression, not always consciously but, rather, as a result of us living in a sexist society. Whether we're comparing our own professional advancement only to that of other women rather than to men, not realizing that our colleagues interrupt us but not our male peers, or laughing along at sexist jokes in order to be seen as "one of the guys," the range of this female complicity varies widely from the invisible to the overt.

There's a popular saying that Ginger Rogers did everything that "ultimate dancer" Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in high heels. Before I heard that phrase many years ago, that readily apparent fact was completely invisible to me. In light of the conditioning that girls receive telling us that we are not wired to do math and science like how boys are, I think of how incredibly talented the women who have succeeded and advanced in these fields must really be.

In what other ways are we putting girls backwards and in high heels and then, when they are as successful as men, patting ourselves on the back for having "equal opportunity" in the world?

I sometimes wonder what would it be like, for instance, to dress in drag for awhile just to see what it's like to have others perceive me as a man. What would I notice and learn about being a man by having others treat me like how they treat men? What would I learn about myself and my "innate" abilities? How have we, as men and women, stunted our own lives, hopes, and aspirations as a result of living in a world that deigns to tell us who we are before we even know who we are?

As a man, would I possess a sense of confidence, strength, and ability that I have not always known as a woman? Facing forward, would I look down and admire the flats on my feet and discover that those shoes had been in my closet all along?

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