Creating a Level Playing Field for Women in Life Sciences

Published: Oct 09, 2017

Creating a Level Playing Field for Women in Life Sciences
October 9, 2017
By Josh Baxt, Breaking News Staff

SAN DIEGO – There have been a number of high-profile gender discrimination lawsuits brought lately in San Diego area. Three faculty members at the Salk Institute allege men have received preferential treatment in pay, promotions and funding. More recently, a former employee at Synthetic Genomics, Inc. (SGI) presented similar allegations.

Cases like these are flash points in our ongoing discussions about gender and science. The scientific community sometimes laments there are not enough women in leadership positions. Still, when women tell the world—sometimes through court filings—that they don’t receive equal respect in this male-dominated arena, the community doesn’t always listen.

The SGI suit paints an ugly picture of women being ignored, belittled and harassed. One section accuses Craig Venter, company co-founder and renowned geneticist, of making an inappropriate comment to a female executive in a roomful of men.

Some may dismiss these allegations as opportunistic attempts to game the system. The women are victimizing the men. They can’t take a joke. They’re mad about something else but fabricating the harassment because they know it will get traction. They’re just plain crazy – pat variations on the hysterical woman trope.

The problem with these excuses is they don’t satisfy Occam’s Razor. These suits are not isolated cases. Does it make sense that an entire class of women are pursuing frivolous lawsuits, subjecting themselves to the grueling legal process, because they are greedy and/or hormonal? Or are they simply responding to actual workplace harassment?

I tend to go with the latter because I have witnessed this type of behavior. I also did nothing about it, which makes me complicit. I was a junior member of the team and not willing to speak truth to power. Security through obscurity.

And that’s really the root of the problem—our tacit agreement to look the other way. We know how these suits are probably going to play out. They will be settled, Salk and SGI will admit no wrongdoing, the women will be enjoined from discussing the matter further. Case closed… until the next time.

If the Venter allegation is accurate, I wonder how the other men in the room reacted. Were some uncomfortable, or did they just accept it? Business as usual. Even if they were uncomfortable, could they stand up to a big personality like Craig Venter without jeopardizing their jobs?

This whole sexist environment strikes me as microbial. We give it a nice warm medium, and it flourishes. If the harassers faced actual social and career consequences, many of them might stop. Peer pressure is a powerful thing, both ways. Enforcement mechanisms—applied uniformly to middle managers and C-suiters—are even better.

Don’t ask me how we get there, because I don’t know. I’ve already failed this test. But we need to consider the opportunity cost of doing nothing. Harassment is one reason there is such a dearth of women in biotech leadership positions. If we make good scientists feel unwelcome, we are saying their gender (or their race or their religion) is more important than their ideas. Beyond the moral and ethical elements, it’s just plain stupid.

Josh Baxt has been a science and healthcare writer for more than 18 years, working at Scripps Health and the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute before going freelance in 2011. He writes about molecular biology, genomics, pharmaceuticals, emerging medical technologies, regulation and public policy. He is based in San Diego.

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