Gender Bias Learning Project

A zany brainy look at a serious subject

A project of the Center for WorkLife Law UC Hastings College of the Law

Ben Barres, PhD.

Professor of Neurobiology, and Chair of the Department of Neurobiology Stanford University School of Medicine

I was born a woman. Thirteen years ago, at the age of 40, I decided to change my sex. I did this not to gain any male advantage, but rather, because of a lifelong gender identity confusion.

Even though I worried it would seriously harm my scientific career, I found that the opportunity to become a man was irresistible. I am not aware of any change in cognitive function or emotion. I am far happier as a man, and have never regretted the change. My colleagues at Stanford, nationally and internationally have all been fantastically supportive.

As a transsexual, I have experienced overt discrimination, for example, health insurance discrimination. But by far, the biggest difference I have noticed is that people who do not know that I was a women treat me with far more respect. I can even complete a whole sentence without being interrupted by a man.

Some people even think that my research is better. Shortly after I changed sex, a faculty member was heard to say, “Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but then his work is much better than his sister’s work.”

And also, men tell me things that I don’t think they would have told me when I was Barbara. A neurosurgeon at Stanford told me that he has never met a woman surgeon who is remotely as good as a man. Another told me he thinks women are like small children. Many have told me that they think gender stereotypes are generally true.

These experiences have made me vividly aware of gender-based stereotypes and biases. Besides changing sex, the only time in my life I’ve taken an action that I thought might harm my career was when I decided to start fighting for the welfare of women in academia.

Video on YouTube from Professor Barres’ speech “Dearth of Women in Science” at Harvard on 3/17/08

PowerPoint Slides from Professor Barres’ speech “Dearth of Women in Science” at Harvard on 3/17/08

To Joan Williams’ web-based training project on gender bias for faculty.

“Joan, your project is so important. Best of luck and thank you for all that you are doing.”
–Ben A. Barres, PhD

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