Tag Archives: gender

What’s In a Headline? That Which We Call a Scientist …

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Laurie and Debbie say:

We each separately saw obituaries for Ben Barres, who died of pancreatic cancer at the end of December.  Laurie saw one from the New York Times, with a headline describing him — accurately — as a “neuroscientist and equal opportunity advocate.” Debbie saw one from the Atlantic, with a headline describing him — accurately — as transgender.

We know that headlines are written by newspaper staffers, not reporters, and it is interesting that the Atlantic article doesn’t focus on his trans identity until several paragraphs down, while the Times article mentions it very early.

Barres himself was clearly a remarkable scientist:

While most of his fellow neuroscientists studied neurons, the branching cells that carry electrical signals through the brain, Barres focused his attention on another group of cells called glia. Even though they equal neurons in number, glia were long dismissed as the brain’s support crew—there simply to provide nutrients or structural scaffolding.* But Barres showed that glia are stars in their own right. They help neurons to mature, producing the connections that are the basis for learning and memory, and then pruning those connections so that the most useful ones remain.

In showing how important glia are, Barres revolutionized our understanding of the brain.

And he was a remarkable human being:

“I interviewed for grad school with Ben Barres and he stopped mid-interview to call another school and advocate on my behalf,” said Alycia Mosley Austin from the University of Rhode Island. As Kay Tye from MIT succinctly said: “Ben Barres was a role model for role models.”

Beyond direct mentorship, Barres repeatedly spoke up for groups who have been historically marginalized in the sciences, including women, minorities, and LGBTQ+ people. He would repeatedly talk about the biases and systemic barriers that keep such groups from succeeding in their careers, often raising the topic in the middle of keynote talks about glia. “Since I have you all trapped on the top of this mountain … I would like to talk about the many barriers women face in science,” he once told neuroscientists at a conference in Lake Arrowhead.


His role as an equal opportunity advocate was inextricably intertwined with his gender history.

An article he wrote for the journal Nature in 2006 titled “Does Gender Matter?” took on some prominent scholars who had argued that women were not advancing in the sciences because of innate differences in their aptitude.

“I am suspicious when those who are at an advantage proclaim that a disadvantaged group of people is innately less able,” he wrote. “Historically, claims that disadvantaged groups are innately inferior have been based on junk science and intolerance.”

The article cited studies documenting obstacles facing women, but it also drew on Dr. Barres’s personal experiences.

Of course, a cis male scientist can be a gender equity advocate, but no cis scientist can have the lived experience of someone who transitioned when they were already studying in their field, and saw the difference in how they were treated. Outside of neuroscience, Barres is perhaps best known for this quotation:

By far, the main difference I have noticed is that people who don’t know I’m transgendered treat me with much more respect: I can even complete a whole sentence without being interrupted by a man.

What’s important is remembering him in his fullness: for his science, for his directly trans related advocacy, and for his other advocacy, while knowing that his friends and colleagues also remember him for his food preferences, what he was like at the end of an all-nighter, and what jokes he preferred.

The two headlines open a complex conversation about how people are identified in the news. Barres was a groundbreaking scientist who did transformational work, and that’s what he should and will be remembered for. Because he was also out as a trans man, and called upon that experience in his advocacy, an obituary which didn’t mention that he was trans would be incomplete. And because he did such important scientific work, calling him a “transgender scientist” subordinates his work to his less central  gender history.

Because the two articles are in direct opposition to their two headlines, we get a chance to look at how much the headlines affect what else we read. If you put the Times headline on the Atlantic article,  his trans history would come as a surprise to the reader who read far enough. If you put the Atlantic headline on the Times article, you get a story that focuses on Barres as a trans man, more than his important work.

So, kudos to the Times for keeping trans out of the headlines, and also featuring it up front as part of Barres’ story.

And endless kudos to Barres, whose good work will continue to flourish both through the ways he transformed brain science, and through the students he mentored.

Why Does My Gender Matter to You? Gender Inclusive Form Design … and More

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Debbie says:

Sabrina Fonseca has a comprehensive article at uxdesign on how to design forms for gender inclusivity.  Almost everything she has to say transfers brilliantly from the specifics of user interface form design into general advice for thinking, talking, and asking about gender in an age where our concepts of gender are changing at lightspeed.

It’s easy for us designers to just slap a gender question that says Male/Female in there — and make it mandatory — because our marketing department needs that data to sell stuff. There are indications that this not only risks losing engagement but also leads to false conclusions based on bad data. The J. Walter Thompson Innovation Group discovered that:

  • 80% of 13–20-year-olds, or “Gen Z”, believe that gender did not define a person as much as it used to;
  • 56% of Gen Z said they knew someone who went by gender neutral pronouns such as “they,” or “ze,” compared to 43% of millennials;
  • 54% of millennials always bought clothes designed for their own gender, while that’s true for only 44% of teens;
  • 70% of Gen Zs felt strongly that public spaces should provide access to gender neutral bathrooms, compared to 57 percent of 21–34-year-olds. …

Here are the basic best practices Fonseca identifies.

1. Give people a really good reason for asking

“Be transparent, explain what exactly you are asking about, and how it will benefit them.”

2. Make it private, safe, and anonymous

“Anonymise the data as much as you can, to make sure you don’t out them by accident. For example, if the results of a small survey show there’s a trans woman in the tech department, and there’s only one woman there, she has been outed.”

3. Always make it optional

“ the user may know better than you if it’s safe or appropriate to disclose the information based on the context”

4. Ask for pronouns instead, if that’s all you need to know

5. Be ready for a complicated answer

“Depending on the context, there are several solutions with more or fewer labels. You want to make it as simple as you can, so you don’t overwhelm users with options.”

6. Consider Internationalization

This one especially resonated with me, as I’ve just come back from an extremely international conference where only one person (my partner and traveling companion) thought to put pronouns on his nametag. This section also includes a fascinating link to a comment she got from Yonatan Zunger about his experiences with internationalizing gender, and especially gender-neutral pronouns, at Google.

7. Just don’t ask

“If you don’t know why you’re asking, then you probably don’t need to know the answer. ”

I only wish she had put the last one first. Even though her first point does address why the question can be excluded, this one is so much stronger.

Everything Fonseca says is valuable, whether you’re a form designer or not. Even though I appreciated the whole article, I keep coming back to that first statistic from “Generation Z”: “gender does not define a person as much as it used to.” We have a very long way to go in that regard, but it would seem that our teenagers are on a revolutionary, encouraging track.