by Jagath V – Objectivity is the bedrock that science rests on. Scientists are often seen as torchbearers of objectivity and reasoning. Science, and scientists however, do not exist in isolation from society. Scientists are a product of society and, they inevitably carry biases and not-so objective beliefs about the world. Our social standing and the opportunities that we get is greatly influenced by our gender, sex, race, sexual orientation etc. Although some argue that this disparity is a result of innate differences between us, scientific studies have consistently proven otherwise. Shouldn’t we work to rid ourselves of these biases?
Gender disparity in science, though greatly reduced, still exists. Less than 30% of researchers around the world are women, the number of women in STEM fields is particularly low. But equal representation of women in science is only half the battle. Like in many fields, women in science still face discrimination – be it at a conscious or sub-conscious level. Their opinions are often less valued than those of their male counterparts. We also have a long way to go for equal representation of sexual minorities – especially transgendered people.
An important glimpse into the experiences of women and sexual minorities in science comes to us from the story of Ben Barres. Ben Barres was a pioneer in the study of glial cells. The glia are a type of cells of the nervous system that, are associated with neurons but, do not produce electrical impulses.
Born in 1954, Ben grew up as a woman – Barbara Morris. He transitioned into a male when he was around 40 years old. He was very vocal about the discrimination that he faced when he was a woman and also, the discrimination that he faced when people learnt that he was trans. His memoir was posthumously published in 2018. Recounting his experience after transitioning he famously said “I can even complete a whole sentence without being interrupted by a man.”
Ben Barres passed away in 2017 but remained a champion of the underrepresented to the end. Whether it was throwing light onto glia at a time when researchers did not recognize their value or being a role model for the underrepresented people in science.
It is important to hear the voices of the underrepresented, especially in the current political climate. The Transgender (protection of rights) Act was made into law on December 5th 2019 despite massive protests from the trans community. Among its many flaws, one stands out: the punishment for sexual assault against trans people is up to 2 years. Whereas, the punishment for sexual assault against cis-gendered women is up to 7 years.
Trans people have to overcome several hurdles just to be seen as equal citizens. This along with the stigma that exists against them in society, makes it really hard for them to be a part of our workforce. One day we will be part of an inclusive community that represents all kinds of people. To get there, we need to listen to the voices that often go unheard.