Battlepanda: But she's waiguoren!


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Friday, July 14, 2006

But she's waiguoren!

I have a friend who speaks excellent Chinese. She's so good, in fact, that she puts on a helluva Taiwanese regional accent for our friends' amusement. She's so good that I've had many conversations with her in completely in Chinese. So why is it that when I went to the market with her last week I found myself automatically translating what the vendor was saying into English for her benefit? Later, she asked the vendor "how much is it", in impeccable Chinese, and he just looked at me, confused, for guidance as to how to decipher what the blond white woman is trying to communicate.

My point is not that Chinese people can't wrap our minds around the fact that a foreigner somehow cracked our secret code. It's to show how frustratingly difficult is for the human mind to overcome preconcieved notions. I know that my friend speaks Chinese for a fact, yet when placed in the context of walking around with a white person at the market, I automatically slipped into the translator mode. Just as the vendor knows that "Duo Shau Chien?" means "how much is it?", yet he somehow failed to recognize the sounds when they came from a Minneosotan.

Swap out "women" for "Minneosotan", "fellow scientists" for me and the vendor and "labs" for the market, and you kind of have the situation that female scientists face. Here's a unique perspective on that situation from a male scientist who used to be a female scientist:
After he underwent a sex change nine years ago at the age of 42, Barres recalled, another scientist who was unaware of it was heard to say, "Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but then his work is much better than his sister's."

And as a female undergraduate at MIT, Barres once solved a difficult math problem that stumped many male classmates, only to be told by a professor: "Your boyfriend must have solved it for you."

"By far," Barres wrote, "the main difference I have noticed is that people who don't know I am transgendered treat me with much more respect" than when he was a woman. "I can even complete a whole sentence without being interrupted by a man."

Barres said the switch had given him access to conversations that would have excluded him previously: "I had a conversation with a male surgeon and he told me he had never met a woman surgeon who was as good as a man."

This is why Larry Summerism is so dangerous. It's hard enough to fight our biases without pretending that we have none*.

*Note the absence of me saying that there are no neurological differences between men and women that could account for some achievement in some fields. Even Barres himself mentions an increase in spatial ability after testosterone therapy. My point is, explaning every gap in achievement between men and women in the sciences as probably due to genetic factors a la Summers and Pinker is an unwarranted assumption. I feel like I should just copy and paste this disclaimer every time I blog on this topic.