Gender lessons – Vivienne Ming
In previous posts here at #WomenRising, we have discussed the many ways in which women’s potentials are suppressed – in society and in the workplace – by the combination of forces that comprise the male patriarchy. Women of superior abilities are often systematically prevented from achieving, at anything like their full potentials. And in many cases, the suppression is done by less talented men who are nonetheless in dominant positions.
Logically, it is clear that there is a macro- and micro-economic cost to this kind of suppression. When a person of superior ability is prevented from expressing those abilities through creative, intrinsically valuable production, there is clearly a loss of economic potential.
I touched on these issues in a recent conversation with a brother-in-law, who holds a senior position in a Fortune 500 company and has an MBA from MIT. I expressed my opinion that the economic losses, from this kind of suppression, might amount to 2% of GDP per year in the United States. He agreed with me in principle, though neither of us knew what the numbers would be, or any study that had estimated them. But by way of illustration, he pointed out a very interesting case study – one that I believe has strong relevance for these issues.
The case he referred to was that of Vivienne Ming – a remarkable person with an amazing personal story – a multitalented inventor, physicist and neuroscientist. You can learn more on her website:
He also recommended a really interesting article in The Atlantic – as an example of how male and female genders are treated, in a case where both are the same person!
The article describes some of Ming’s extraordinary life story and accomplishments, and is told in the context of her gender transition in her 30s. It describes, in fascinating detail, the changes in perception of her – as a person and as a colleague – that followed the change in gender.
Both before and after the transition, Ming was extremely talented and innovative, with multiple career specialties and a long list of amazing accomplishments. But in the ways that others dealt with her, and in their perceptions of her abilities, she saw remarkable divergence as a woman from the status she had as a man. These differences highlight the treatment of gender by society, and the ways in which gender bias drives radically different presumptions about males vs. females – in this case, an individual who is both male AND female at different times in life.
With the medical procedures of Ming’s gender transition, certain changes occurred, and others didn’t happen at all. Put simply, in most respects Ming was the same person, before and after the transition. But by crossing the gender line, she also crossed the boundary between male treatment and female treatment, even as a single individual. And this excerpt from the article gives a striking illustration of the contrast – between the boundary that was not crossed as one individual, and the gender bias that suddenly treated her as a stereotyped female.
“Almost overnight, they stopped asking me math questions,” said Ming. During her transition, she was working as a scientist, and her colleagues thought highly of her skills. She had even developed a unique, complex algorithm as a grad student—an algorithm she used to create an artificial intelligence that learned to hear, which she then put into a neuro-prosthetic cochlear implant… But after her transition, nobody asked her about math anymore. This was a striking moment for a person who had grown up with the “arbitrary privilege” of being male: “Nobody told me I couldn’t do math or be a scientist,” she said.
In the context of this stunning display of gender bias, it is striking that Ming’s productivity as an inventor – with advanced math and science as integral components in her work – appears to have accelerated. And notably, the increased levels of estrogen from transitioning may have played a positive role. “To her mind, both as neuroscientist and as a person who experienced transitioning to a woman, estrogen is nothing short of a wonder drug.”
For me as a scientist, it is fascinating to note the contrasting views of colleagues with respect to the same person, and the same skill set, but before and after gender transition. Vivienne Ming’s story presents a clear case study of one individual. But other cases are also discussed in the article, and similar effects on the perceptions of others were observed.
There are lessons to be learned from these stories, and we should take heed. Biases in our thinking are pernicious, and can be extremely difficult to overcome. But knowing that we have them is surely a first step to doing better, and a call to beware of easy conclusions. And in all cases in our lives, we need to evaluate the true person, and the true abilities that each presents, and proceed in our dealings based on those facts.
Written with love by @textifyer59
Gender lessons – Vivienne Ming