April 17, 2018

Dr. Ben Barres was one of the world’s leading neurobiologists whose work led to groundbreaking discoveries regarding degenerative brain disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease. Dr. Barres died in December from pancreatic cancer. He left a legacy of remarkable scientific discovery in the field of neurobiology but perhaps his most interesting contribution to science was in battling gender bias.

Dr. Barres was born a female, Barbara, and after undergoing a mastectomy to treat breast cancer, additional surgeries and hormone therapy, he transitioned to become known as Ben in 1997. Dr. Barres had the unique perspective of leading in the field of science both as a male and a female, and he did not always love what he saw, heard and experienced.

“It’s caused me to reflect on the barriers women face.” ~ Barres, The Washington Post, Dec. 30, 2017

In 2005, Dr. Barres was furious over Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers’ claim that the lesser number of females in science was due to the “intrinsic aptitude” of women. Dr. Barres considered the comment a form of blaming the victim.

“The comments 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.” ~ Barres, The Washington Post, Dec. 30, 2017

Dr. Barres also shared a story about when he presented at an academic conference after he transitioned to life as a male. A colleague overheard another scientist compare Dr. Barres’ work to that of his “sister” Barbara’s – and how his work was considered superior to hers.

Dr. Barres was open and honest about how he received much more respect in his field as a man, and even noted that, as a male, he could “complete a whole sentence without being interrupted by a man.” Living as first a woman and then as a man, he performed the ultimate scientific test: holding all other variables constant. This makes his experience of gender bias distinctly compelling.

Dr. Barres’ story reminds us of the strong, inherent gender bias that exists today, particularly in male-dominated fields. More so, his example reminds us of the importance of respect, empathy and candor: respect for other unique perspectives in this world, empathy for those whose paths and experiences are different from our own, and candor in the face of any form of discrimination.