7.23.2006

A man in our corner.

Not surprisingly, some feel that the sciences are as biased as the legal field. And, Ben Barres, formerly Barbara Barres, is the first to agree with that assessment, as explained in this intriguing Newsweek article.

Ben, now a he, used to be a she, is a nueroscientist and tenured professor at Stanford.The scientist's physical transformation began at the age of 40, when Barres was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer. When doctors recommended a mastectomy, Barres made a startling request: take the healthy one, too. With his cancer cured, Barres sought testosterone treatments to change his sex from female to male. He says he's lost the ability to cry (or at least cry a flood of tears), which he believes is purely biological. But the "psychic relief" of finally feeling comfortable in his own skin is huge: "I'm so much happier now."

Barres is speaking out because of his deep commitment to science and because he believes he and other senior faculty have a responsibility to help women rise through the ranks. Yes, there are clearly physical differences between the sexes, says Barres, but there's no evidence that those differences are relevant to academic achievement. At Barres's alma mater, half of the undergrad science majors are women, says MIT biology professor Nancy Hopkins, but women account for only 13 percent of the faculty. The disparity exists nationwide. "It's leakage along the pipeline all the way," says Stanford president John Hennessy. In his commentary, Barres says selection committees need to be diversified, women need help in balancing family with career (Barres wants to start a foundation to fund child care) and academic leadership needs to break the silence about sexism. (Emphasis added).
Aren't those italicised statistics interesting? They're so damn similar to the statistics being bantered about lately regarding the number of women law students vs. women partners in law firms. Coincidence or evidence of an inherent bias in our culture? Or perhaps a combination of factors. But, bias is absolutely an important factor in the mix, regardless of those (usually men, but not always) who purport to offer any number of "rational" explanations for the phenomenon.

One way or another, our culture and the various professions are going to have to find a way to address the failure to retain women in the upper ranks. Otherwise, there will ultimately be a shortage that will be impossible to fill.

And, changes are already on the horizon. As I'll discuss in a few days, some major clients are already beginning to demand diversity and some law firms are making half-hearted attempts to make the workplace more women and family friendly.

But, I doubt we'll see any major changes anytime soon. Unless of course someone wins a major discrimination lawsuit against BigLaw. It certainly changed the field of accounting. But, for some reason, I can't see that happening. But, you never know...

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