Remembering a champion for justice in academia and emulating his approach

If you’ve checked out the previous posts in this series, you’re aware of just how prevalent and detrimental implicit bias can be for individuals, society, and scientific progress. How can we overcome these seemingly insurmountable problems? Though numerous individuals have taken countless approaches to combat bias, we believe that one particular approach stands out among them. Dr. Ben Barres, known for developing new methods in the laboratory, also had a powerful method for showing people that bias exists and persuading them to act on it.

Recognizing a pervasive and insidious problem

When Mariko first started graduate school, in pursuit of an MD/PhD in neuroscience, she believed that academia was a meritocracy. “I felt strongly that being a woman had never held me back,” she says, smiling a little at the memory and adding, “I was wrong.” She remembers how her thesis advisor, Ben Barres, argued with her in that first year. He pointed out the senior faculty, deans, and presidents of prestigious universities; the editors of scientific journals; the heads of funding agencies and coordinators of conference symposia. “Where are all the women?” he asked. Once she started to notice the inequality, Mariko saw it everywhere. “I gave a talk for the department, and afterwards people told me that I was making too many jokes. People don’t expect humor when it’s a five foot tall woman giving the talk—you have to play to their biases.” She sees it in more serious contexts, too, like when people attribute her major scientific discovery to her husband, a middle author on the paper that she spearheaded. “It’s frustrating,” she admits.

Dr. Ben Barres was a Stanford professor of neurobiology and a champion for the rights of minorities in STEM.

Dr. Ben Barres was a Stanford professor of neurobiology and a champion for the rights of minorities in STEM.

Ben’s response to Mariko’s naiveté was typical of the spirited and outspoken professor of Neurobiology, known for his revolutionary work studying the brain’s glial cells. No matter his audience, Ben used his distinctive blend of humor and blunt honesty to drive straight to the heart of every issue, be it scientific or moral. “He was passionate as heck,” Mariko says of her advisor. “He wasn’t afraid to speak truth to power, even if it could hurt him.”

Ben’s voice rang out from within a culture of silence. Take for example one academic conference, which was all too much like every other academic conference. At this particular conference, a female postdoctoral scholar had just given one of the best talks of the weekend. “The work was stellar,” said one attendee, who has elected to remain anonymous. “Her presentation was spotless, and there was even a little humor. We were all impressed.” But when the session opened up for questions, things took a turn. An assistant professor rose to his feet and, in front of 300 members of the postdoc’s chosen field, prefaced his question with, “Every time you present unpublished work, it turns me on.”

Women throughout the meeting looked at each other, as if to ask “what the f*ck just happened?” Several of them texted Ben right then, voicing their disbelief. The female trainees in the room, perhaps at their first conference, might very well have been asking themselves whether the professor’s behavior was typical. Would they be destined for such encounters if they maintained their career trajectory? The speaker herself was mortified. Somehow, she took a breath and calmly delivered an answer to his follow-up question. The session continued.

Several women approached the professor following the session, only to be told that they were being too sensitive; it had been a joke. In the discussions that followed, more women exchanged stories of their interactions with the professor, none of which put him in a positive light. Eventually, as each scientist’s story contributed to an emerging pattern of inappropriate behavior and as the professor refused to admit any wrongdoing, many women approached the conference organizers to voice their discomfort. The organizers’ initial response was to defer responsibility. If the speaker was so bothered by his behavior, they suggested, she herself should report it. Or perhaps the people who had been offended could get together and write to the professor directly to let him know that his actions were inappropriate. “How many women have to speak up for someone to take this issue seriously?” one attendee mused, “We can do much better than asking trainees to protect themselves.”

Breaking the silence

As word of the incident made its way to Ben, he became incensed. Several of those he spoke to suggested it might be best to stay silent. The post-doc was embarrassed enough and the conference organizers had shown little inclination to act. But as Ben gathered more stories, uncovering the history of incidents surrounding this same professor, his anger resurfaced. Sexual harassment at scientific conferences, especially of female trainees by male professors, was the rule, not the exception. Ben saw that this was the opportunity to push for a change.

First, Ben and one of the conference attendees sent emails to the symposia chair. THe emails quote the conference’s sexual harassment policy, acknowledging, “That this policy exists is a great first step. However, it doesn't work if it is not enforced.” Their tone is direct, leaving no room for interpretation. “It is the responsibility of the session and meeting chairs to set a tone of non-harassment and speak up immediately if someone violates this policy.” Further, it is the responsibility of the funding agency to “make it clear that they have a zero tolerance policy on sexual harassment” from the start.

Ben took the intervention further, emailing the chairs of other conference series, and even the head of the National Institute of Health (NIH). He described the problem of sexual harassment at scientific conferences in clear terms and demanded that those in leadership positions take specific action. He referenced both data and personal stories, leveraged his connections and influence as a tenured Stanford professor, and appealed to people’s basic decency. Most of the people he contacted described his emails as “a wake-up call.” Those who attempted to ignore him received a second, less polite call to action.

Ben didn’t stop there. He routinely interrupted his own scientific talks to discuss what he described as “the nature of uncovering truth in science and…how biases undermine that search.” He told the post-doc’s story and added others: The prestigious faculty member who brags of having bedded over 200 trainees at conferences. The graduate student who believes she is having “the scientific talk of her life” with a hero in her field, only to have him write his hotel room number on her hand. Ben explained to captive audiences across the country—people expecting to learn only of the latest discoveries in glial biology—that almost every woman he’d ever asked had her own conference story to tell. He emphasized that such incidents “send a message to a woman that she’s not valued for her ideas, for her science.” He half-joked that the senior faculty were beyond help, but implored the trainees in the room to remember and, when someday they became faculty, to end the cycle.

Ben’s efforts did not end sexual harassment at scientific conferences. But his voice joined a chorus of others that was beginning to rise above the silence, all calling for action against such behavior, and together these voices had an impact. The particular conference involved, and several other prominent symposia as well, revised its sexual harassment policy. The policy now identifies clear examples of what constitutes harassment, including “comments or jokes that focus on gender differences or sexual topics.” It includes the names of specific people to contact with complaints and outlines clear repercussions for those who violate the policy, including the possibility of being banned from future meetings. On a broader scale, within a year of Ben’s initial email, the NIH released multiple statements doubling down on their commitment to a diverse scientific workforce, including a letter in the scientific journal Nature and an interview with Forbes.

Through his actions, Ben set an example for other senior faculty by demonstrating the value of acting as an ally for those lower on the academic totem pole. He also established a legacy in trainees like Mariko, who are more likely to recognize and oppose future injustices. “He made me realize that there’s a problem,” says Mariko, “and that we have to speak out.”

While it might be difficult to emulate Ben’s personality, his advocacy formula is made up of other key ingredients that we all can adopt. First, rather than bombard his audience with every problem of inequality in science, he distilled down to the most critical issues and brought clearly defined asks to the people who were in a position to effect the most change. Second, he was unafraid to interrupt academic spaces, thereby reaching exactly the audiences who need to learn about bias in academia, but who may not have otherwise attended a talk about inequality. Finally, he combined unremitting persistence with a profound recognition of each person’s essential humanity, relentlessly pushing people to enact change without alienating them.

Adopting Ben’s approach to combating bias

One evening in November of 2017, members of the second year Neurosciences PhD cohort gathered around a small table in a downtown Palo Alto cafe, venting our anger at the inequality we saw around us and our frustration at failed attempts by well-meaning people to combat it. Though it wasn’t obvious to us at the time, we settled on an approach that directly mimicked Ben’s style.

We first struggled with the question, how could we convince scientists to pay attention to issues of subjective bias when we pride ourselves on objectivity? We decided to start with a dive into the data, reading broadly about studies investigating issues faced by women and underrepresented minorities in STEM fields. From there, we tried to distill the information we collected down to the most critical issues, the most pervasive problems, and the most solid data, along with evidence of tractable solutions to address them. We met repeatedly as a group, discussing the papers we had read and building our story arc through the data. Our method mirrored Ben’s approach of “fighting for specifics” as put by Kevin Guttenplan, a graduate student in the Barres lab, which “came from a place that inequality seems ridiculous.” By diving into the data, we too could see how irrational scientists’ behavior can be when it comes to how we treat others (e.g., hiring decisions and recommendation letters swayed by gender stereotypes). Like Ben, we could find no scrap of scientific evidence to support the claim that women or other minorities are less biologically suited to an academic career. What we did find was evidence—highlighted in the studies presented in this series—of systemic bias, of what Ben called “a system designed by men for men,” and of a leaky pipeline resulting in disproportionately few women and underrepresented minorities in top academic positions.

Armed with data, we needed to communicate our results to our scientific community. We settled on an invasion of the Neurosciences Journal Club. Journal Club is a required course for first, second, and third year students in the program, in which students present recent neuroscience articles and are evaluated by their peers. When it came time for our cohort to sign up for presentation slots throughout the Winter quarter, nine of us chose to present articles from our data dive into inequality in science instead of standard neurobiology papers. In essence, we replaced the neuroscience curriculum with our own. Though there was initially some hesitation, the end result was a massive success, with positive feedback all around. Our captive audience struck by how damaging bias, both implicit and explicit, is to many people. Not only that, but many of them finished the quarter with concrete ideas as to how they could participate in interventions to solve these problems. Many were even inspired to dive into the data, as we had.

Our use of the journal club as a forum for these discussions emulated Ben’s unique tendency of interrupting academic spaces, most often his own talks. Ben would pause right at a peak moment of scientific suspense, as in this talk he gave at MIT, to insert a list of barriers faced by women in STEM comprising both data and personal anecdotes. He would juxtapose the frustratingly illogical phenomenon of subjective bias with rigorously objective, logical scientific stories. This strategy not only emphasized how irrational unfair treatment of our colleagues is, but also leveraged the interest, curiosity, and suspense of an audience who wouldn’t necessarily have sought out a talk about inequality on their own. In combination, this approach allowed Ben not only to create and foster energy for change, but to focus this energy within the academic spaces where it would help most greatly and most immediately.

The final key ingredient to Ben’s approach, and perhaps the most important, was his relentless persistence. Undeterred by unanswered emails, Ben pushed others to enact change where they could and refused to remit. Ben was responsible for critical changes to our institutions, such as increasing the number of women on the selection panel for the NIH Pioneer award - which led to an increase in the percentage of women recipients from 0% to 50%. Ben was not afraid to relentlessly contact those in positions of power to advocate for the rights of others. As Kevin describes it, Ben’s determination made him the “nuclear option” of the community; others knew that if they “got Ben to do it, then it would happen...nothing would stop him.” Kevin believes that Ben’s remarkable generosity was what powered his persistence, saying that “his generosity tied into his willingness to put his personal and professional reputation at stake to push for diversity.”

Importantly, Ben was able to maintain this dogged push for justice without alienating those at the receiving end. Rather, he approached everyone, from the first-year graduate student to the Dean of Medicine, as a friend, offering suggestions to improve diversity with the same geniality as he served up tips for making the perfect cup of coffee. Mariko ties Ben’s impact in part to the way that “he really cared about people and their experiences,” such that he could be “blunt and prickly without driving people away.” He could engage people in conversations about difficult topics and leave them with the feeling that their actions could make a difference, all without ever appearing to preach from a soapbox.

Moving towards an inclusive and objective scientific community

The door to Ben's office remains a testament both to the welcoming atmosphere that Ben cultivated in his own lab and to the affection his trainees bore for him. They decorated their beloved advisor's door every time he went on a trip.

The door to Ben's office remains a testament both to the welcoming atmosphere that Ben cultivated in his own lab and to the affection his trainees bore for him. They decorated their beloved advisor's door every time he went on a trip.

Inspired by Ben’s determination and the open-hearted way that he engaged in tough conversations, and armed with the invaluable support of our cohort-mates, we faced the challenge of communicating uncomfortable data about ourselves and our community. We broached a discussion about the kinds of realities that we are naturally inclined to look away from, and were undeterred by those who suggested we move these discussions to the background. Reflecting on our approach, we have come to realize just how deeply Ben has influenced the culture within the Stanford neuroscience community and beyond, affecting problem-solving strategies even in those of us who didn’t have relationships with him personally.

Ben did not set out to become one of the most effective and well-known advocates for minorities in science. In fact, when he transitioned to male in 1997 and a colleague mentioned that he would be a powerful voice from his position as nearly tenured faculty at Stanford University he replied, “I don't know that I'll be an advocate, I'm just trying to figure it out for myself.” But Ben was at his core a scientist—he had an irrepressible drive to seek out the truth. When he inadvertently conducted his own experiment in being perceived as female and then as male in academia, and encountered the disheartening results, he could not remain silent. He summed up the feeling in a talk at MIT, just one month before his death, saying “I’ve lived life as the same person in two different genders. I am aware in a way that few people differently men and women are treated, just based on their gender identity. It’s made me very aware and, frankly, very angry.” Once Ben had identified the truth, he spent the rest of his life engaged in a fight for justice that was as groundbreaking and inspirational as his scientific work.

In part, the spirit of his advocacy seems to arise naturally from his particular blend of personality traits. David, who had Ben on his graduate thesis committee, describes it, saying, “There are some people who master compassion, but their empathy prevents them from taking courageous [but potentially offensive] steps. Others can be bold and outspoken, but are inattentive to the struggles of others. It is a rare person who combines warmth, empathy, and caring with a fearlessness that makes them a great fighter for justice.” Ben was such a person.

In addition to the many successful changes that Ben initiated, there are still many fights that remain. For example, Ben famously suggested that the tenure clock become a thing of the past, suggesting instead that we award tenure upon hiring. Ben argued that this was important both because it disproportionately impedes women’s career progression (given the frequent intersection of tenure clock and biological clock), and because it causes young faculty to play it safe just when they reach the peak of their fierce academic creativity and innovation. In addition, the recent spread of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements to the academic arena highlight the continued  prevalence of the types of harassment that Ben loudly condemned. By continuing to advocate for trainees, for women and underrepresented minorities, and for the creation of safe academic spaces, we can carry on the work that Ben fought for.