Monday, May 31, 2010

Transgender Academics and Sexism

A friend linked me to an article on entitled Experiences of Transgendered Profs a Case Study in Sexism. The article commented on an article by Shankar Vedantam in the Australian newspaper The Age entitled How the Sex Bias Prevails, which is an excerpt from his book The Hidden Brain. The subject of the article is interesting to me personally as a transgender woman in academia and I also feel that the comments to the online version of the aricle on The Age's website provide an interesting commentary on and support of the argument made in the article.

Vedantam begins by arguing that while sexism can be proven through laboratory experiments, it is often hard to prove in real life. He provided the example of a lab experiment in which two groups of volunteers were given the description of a manager they would be working for; for the first group the manager was named "Andrea" and for the second the manager was named "James." Nothing else about the description was changed. The experiment found that "[t]hree-quarters thought James was more likeable than Andrea" and that "four in five volunteers preferred to have James as their boss. Andrea seemed less likeable merely because she was a woman who happened to be a leader."

Vedantam argues that one way to prove the existence of sexism in real life would be to find people who are treated differently at different points in their lives when the only thing that changed about them was their sex/gender. He provides as a case study two trasngender biology professors at Standford: Joan Roughgarden and Ben Barres. While living as a woman, Ben described the various ways in which his intelligence and opinions were devalued, including having a professor say "You must have had your boyfriend solve it" after correctly solving a particularly difficult computer problem in a class at MIT. After transitioning, Ben found that people now treat him with more respect; "I can even complete a whole sentence without being interrupted by a man."

Joan's experience was, not surprisingly, almost the exact opposite. As a young male professor, "it felt as though tracks had been laid down; all Roughgarden had to do was stick to the tracks, and the high expectations that others had of the young biologist would do the rest." After publishing a paper challenging the traditional view of the role of tide pools, she received harsh reviews but her "ideas were taken seriously." After transitioning, Joan "said she no longer feels she has 'the right to be wrong.'" She found the reception to be very different when she challenged Darwin's theory of sexual selection. Instead of engaging with her about her theory, many scientists would yell at her and be physically intimidating. "At a meeting of the Ecological Society of America in Minneapolis, Joan said, a prominent expert jumped up on the stage after her talk and started shouting at her." When asked about interpersonal changes after transitioning, Joan said that "'You get interrupted when you are talking, you can't command attention, but above all you can't frame the issues.'"

Experiences like these are not unfamiliar to anyone who has transitioned, either in academia or outside of it. I've noticed slight changes in the way even I am sometimes treated, even at a much earlier stage in my transition, such as having to work harder to get students to quiet down so that we can start class. I think my experiences are different from Joan's for two reasons. (1) I'm begining my transition at a younger age and don't have an established career as a male academic to contrast my current experiences with. (2) Communication, the humanities and social sciences seem to be more accepting of gender differences than the hard sciences, in my opinion at least, but again it's very early in my academic career so I haven't served on committees yet or had people yell at me after presenting a paper at a convention. I will be going to the national convention in my field this Fall so we'll see if my presentations receive any different of a response compared to when I've presented papers as a male in the past.

Not only was the article itself interesting, but I also found many of the comments to be very revealing. Most of the ones I'll be talking about come from a single commenter known only as "Alex." His first comment attacks Joan's theory in the same way that is being argued in the article. He then follows it up by questioning Joan's emotional state.

"How does a transitioner's hormone therapy (when emotional behavior such as paranoia is heightened) factor into these findings?"

This is a common misogynist tactic; women can't make logical arguments because they are too emotional. He then continues his attack on her work.

"The more I read this theory, the more I can see why her peers ignore her 'work'. It's the stuff of a feminazi manipulator. But who knows... maybe one day militants will quote her theory in the same way the nazis quoted Darwin as a reason as to why they were the dominant race, born to rule Europe."

He is accusing Dr. Roughgarden of having an agenda that influenced her findings (like a man could never have an agenda!). Again, it just continues the theme that the research done by women is influenced by internal/external forces, which is an issue in the "objective" world of science. While a male scientist can just objectively observe the world around him, a female scientist searches for anything to support her political agenda or emotional state! My criticism of "Alex" would probably be seen as supporting his argument.

"Hmm, on the plus side because she is a she, some other femi-academic will feel sorry for her. And touched by all her troubles, she'll probably get tenure in some femi-faculty somewhere for being such a troubled woman.

Why couldn't she just resort to creating a good paper instead of whining?"

I always find it amusing when commenters are factually incorrect about the articles they are commenting on; if you read the article, you will see that Dr. Roughgarden already has tenure at Stanford. "Alex" continues his line of arugment by arguing that not only is women's research hampered by emotions and political agendas, but that these are the bases for academic advancement for women, not academic success. He argues that she is just "whining" instead of doing better research. While Dr. Roughgarden welcomes challenges to her theory, the strength or correctness is not the issue here. The issue is the way all women are treated when people disagree with them. The problem isn't that her theory could be stronger or might be incorrect but that she is being accused of whining and using what has happened to her to unfairly advance herself. It's the same argument that has been used against many underpriviledged and subordinate groups. Many people in dominant positions in society cannot recognize the advantages they've received toward advancement.

I'll leave you with two of "Alex's" responses to other commenters criticizing him, one female and one male. Notice any difference?

"Wow Lara.
Getting a bit emotional aren't you? I guess you can't help it, hey?

Shankar Vedantam is a man on a mission to sell books.
You should buy it Lara as it melds perfectly with your programing...though, it would be better if he was a she.
Isn't that right Lara?"

I believe you are addressing me. I also believe that this article is an advert for Vedantam's book. That headline about 'leaving no doubt' in the print paper is a bait and yes, I have bitten at it.

I bit at it as it truly annoys me... it annoys me that the research cited leaves many doubts as to the validity of Vedantam's commercial theories and Roughgarden's selective inter-species argument.
Ben Barres and Joan Roughgarden's experiences do not make for proof. Nor do Roughgarden's pet oystercatchers.

I too am familiar with Roughgarden's argument (though I'd forgotten her name until now) as I came across it a few years back but I quickly dismissed it as the use of a species of birds to prove anything to do with us, isn't logical. I suspect you read further into that argument than I did- your loss."


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