image courtesy of The Transgender at Work project
Ben Barres is a biologist at Stanford who lived and worked as Barbara Barres until he was in his forties. For most of his career, he experienced bias, but didn’t give much weight to it—seeing incidents as discrete events. (When he solved a tough math problem, for example, a professor said, “You must have had your boyfriend solve it.”) When he became Ben, however, he immediately noticed a difference in his everyday experience: “People who don’t know I am transgendered treat me with much more respect,” he says. He was more carefully listened to and his authority less frequently questioned. He stopped being interrupted in meetings. At one conference, another scientist said, “Ben gave a great seminar today—but then his work is so much better than his sister’s.” (The scientist didn’t know Ben and Barbara were the same person.) “This is why women are not breaking into academic jobs at any appreciable rate,” he wrote in response to Larry Summers’s famous gaffe implying women were less innately capable at the hard sciences. “Not childcare. Not family responsibilities,” he says. “I have had the thought a million times: I am taken more seriously.”
What happens when the opposite transformation takes place—when a man becomes a woman? Joan Roughgarden is a biologist at Stanford who lived and worked as Jonathan Roughgarden until her early fifties, and her experience was almost the mirror image of Barres’s. In her words, “men are assumed to be competent until proven otherwise, whereas a woman is assumed to be incompetent until she proves otherwise.” In an interview, Roughgarden also noted that if she questioned a mathematical idea, people assumed it was because she didn’t understand it. Other transwomen have found changes not only in perceptions of their ability, but also their personality. In Schilt’s work with transwomen for a forthcoming book, she found that behaviors transwomen had as men were now seen as off-putting. What was once “take-charge” was now “aggressive.” And they had to adapt; the transwomen quickly learned that “being the same way in the world would be detrimental to your career.”
Very powerful argument – I’m hopeful there will be more research on this topic. Gender discrimination, like racial discrimination, is such a subtle thing; it’s much harder to recognize in today’s politically correct society.