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Playing the Woman Card in Cell and Gene Therapy

The juxtaposition of two emails in my inbox last Friday morning was startling.

First came an announcement of an eBook series about “Women in Cell and Gene Therapy,” with the subhead “The Most Influential Women in Cell & Gene Therapy” over a blurb explaining that the first entry is “to celebrate some of the exceptional women, who are leading the way in the cell and gene therapy space.”

1453664554801-c12The second email, from my pal Wendy, was a series of advertisements from the 1950s:

“You’ve won him – now you must keep him.”

“Christmas morning she’ll be happier with a Hoover.”

“You mean a woman can open it?”

The image of the woman struggling to open that tough ketchup bottle made me return to the cell and gene therapy report. Clicking on Read More revealed that the eBook addresses the disparity of only 4% of leadership roles in cell and gene therapy going to people with two X chromosomes. “A truly equal balance of male and female characteristics has been proven to make businesses, industries and even whole countries thrive,” the intro claims.

Something bugged me, but I couldn’t at first name it.

So I read about the 15 influential women, all superstars of their science or non-technical advocates who’ve made a real difference. It’s engagingly written, the women brilliant and exciting, yet a few entries include “the first woman to…”. Cringe. I noted the absence of at least three women I know at center stage in the “space” and wondered if they, too, were ill at ease at being singled out because of their gender.

My thoughts crystallized when I imagined substituting words in the title:

“The Most Influential Diabetics in Cell & Gene Therapy”

“The Most Influential Cat Owners in Cell & Gene Therapy”

“The Most Influential Tuba Players in Cell & Gene Therapy”

Of course “The Most Influential Men in Cell & Gene Therapy” would have been an outrage – but how is that different from highlighting only women?

A GREAT FEMALE ANYTHING IS A NOT-SO-SUBTLE INSULT

Serena_Williams_(7490510352)Ironically also last Friday Maxwell Stratchan wrote in HuffPo “Don’t Call Serena Williams One of the ‘Greatest Female Athletes’”. He nailed my discomfort: “Serena Williams, she of the No. 1 tennis ranking and Grand Slam singles titles, wants to be known as one of the most dominant athletes in the history of the world. She isn’t interested in being subtly undercut or indirectly diminished. And she sure as hell isn’t interested in being labeled as simply a great female athlete, considering all the unspoken condescension that comes with the label.”

When a reporter asked Serena how she felt about being known as one of the greatest female athletes, she said, “I prefer … ‘one of the greatest athletes of all time.”

Greatest female anything” as well as “the first woman to” are no different from the ketchup ad extolling the amazing ability of a mere women to open a tightly screwed-on bottle top. Bottle-opening ability must be a male characteristic.

DÉJÀ VU ALL OVER AGAIN

The Most Influential Women” report catapulted me back to 1981, and my faculty interview at a small, midwestern university. I perfectly fit the thinly-veiled desired demographics:

Young. Geneticist. Two X chromosomes.

My audience of old white male professors slumbered through my peppy presentation of flies with legs on their heads, back in those days of showing actual slides.

They liked me.

I was in.

A Barr body indicates the inactivated X chromosome. Only girls and women have them.
A Barr body indicates the inactivated X chromosome. Only girls and women have them.

Even if I hadn’t had a pulse and the maggots were beginning to feast on my decaying female flesh, I suspect I might have been hired had one of the faculty slapped a stained cell of mine under a microscope and seen that telltale Barr body that serves as a chromosomal woman card.

I took the job.

My first day on campus, I was ushered about, cameras flashing, as if to say Look! We hired a woman scientist! We actually found one! Aren’t we enlightened?

Then came the new faculty dinner, whereupon the dean of arts and sciences introduced the menfolk as Doctor, and little old me as Mrs.

So it goes.

But wait! Have things really changed?

Just two years ago, one of the cell and gene therapy companies hired me to present an overview of the indications closest to market, at a meeting for Wall Street investors.

I bought a fancy suit, gave a nice talk. Then it was time for the panel discussion and I was parked conspicuously in the center of about 8 of us, the only female. Livestreaming began.

Look! We have a woman! Aren’t we enlightened?

It was a lengthy discussion, at which I was asked not a single question. The suit became uncomfortable as I fidgeted to keep my circulation going and pantyhose up, a pesky female characteristic. However, the audience was about 40 percent women, and I chatted with some of them later, so I remain optimistic that maybe someday we won’t need special reports celebrating successful women in the cell and gene therapy and other technical spaces.

Calico cats, like Butters, do not need a Woman Card. They are all females.
A calico cat, like Butters, does not need a Woman Card. Calicos and tortoiseshells are all females.

WHY BOTHER?

How important is it to draw attention to the fact that women are underrepresented in certain fields? Why should a field even strive to attain the goal of 50:50? Because women want it? Because men feel guilty? Or because it makes a good story, enticing PR? Why is it wrong for more physicists to be men and more florists to be women, as long as individuals have equal opportunities?

The effort to attain the appearance of equity in technical fields could backfire. While it might interest some little girls in science, for others it just might plant the idea that it’s normal for women to avoid these fields. The latter would have been me.

I was a natural-born scientist, dragging home all sorts of creatures, dead or alive, from toddlerhood. And I was fortunate enough to have a mother who encouraged this behavior, even helping me fashion a bed in a sock drawer for a “lettuce bug” – a giant lime-green beast. When it perished and stank, we moved it to the fire escape. Nurturing an insect — what a combination of female and male characteristics!

When in the fourth grade a trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame turned into my first fossil-discovery expedition, she took me and my cigar box of brachiopods up to the top floor of the Museum of Natural History and asked the resident paleontologist to identify them. I was entranced.

Thanks, mom, for fostering a young biologist.
Thanks, mom, for fostering a young biologist.

Mom never for an instant said or did anything ever to even suggest that I couldn’t become an invertebrate paleontologist (as I wrote after the museum visit) or a geneticist or an entomologist because I was a she. And it certainly never occurred to me. I was the quintessential tomboy, and it was okay for me to dress like a boy and do what boys do.

I read books about scientists, not women scientists.

Kids might not naturally notice the distinctions that later divide people into categories. Why point them out?

Today, googling “women in science” still gets many more hits than “men in science.” We’re still an anomaly. But drawing attention to that is not only insulting, but it could actually turn off some young women.

So why not publish “The Most Influential PEOPLE in Cell & Gene Therapy” and include women?

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