“There will never be a new world order until women are a part of it.”
It has been, not just for me but for many, national women’s month. Maybe it’s not officially proclaimed as such, but it has just worked out that way.
It started for me the second week of January at the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference. What has been notable about this conference in past years is the absence of women. I even wrote about this in 2011 in a post called, “Alas, No Line for the Ladies Room,” in which I lamented the stunning absence of my sisters at what is arguably the most important healthcare business conference in the world. I recall noting that, back in 2011, attending JP Morganpalooza was like speed-dating but without the women in the equation, making it considerably less fun.
There was a notorious event, hosted by LifeSci Advisors, at 2016’s JP Morgan conference which seems to have had the unintended consequence of waking the sleeping giantess. The firm hired a bunch of female models to entertain mostly male guests and blocked many women from attending. They were pilloried for it (I wrote about it HERE) and then massively apologized by pledging to get enlightened. Um, yeah.
But this year is apparently the year when the tide started to turn. I recall noting a sense of optimism last year, but this year, as I write this the day after the Women’s March that followed the 2016 election, I am hoping we are officially on an unstoppable pink train. Yes, it’s disturbing (to say the least) that the electorate has chosen people and policies that are decidedly anti-female. But this time, it provoked a disturbance in The Force that has roared back 2.5 million strong and growing. Can it be a coincidence that the biggest box office hits so in recent weeks are a) Rogue One, where a badass young woman leads the effort that results in the overthrow of the evil empire? and b) Hidden Figures, a movie which honors the work of three young black female scientists, programmers and engineers at NASA without whom the space program may not have succeeded as it did.
As I watched the Women’s March from the sidewalk and from the TV screen yesterday, I couldn’t help but think that this women thing is for real and finally so. Even at JP Morgan, the tide seems to have turned. While in past years there was an event or two targeted to the dribble of women who attended the conference, this year there were at least 8 events that I personally heard of that were women-only and overflowing. Silicon Valley Bank, Deloitte, Canaan Partners, Wilson Sonsini, Women Business Leaders, Springboard, Square One Bank, GE Ventures and many others led events that were exclusively or primarily aimed at giving women a chance to celebrate their successes and network with each other. This is a massive upgrade over prior years and speaks to the number of women who showed up to do serious business at the conference this year. It was hard to miss the trend when in many other years it was hard to miss the oversight. A great thing.
Also quite notable at this year’s conference was the release of an open letter, signed by a veritable who’s who of biotech, demanding a commitment to advance gender diversity in the biotech and healthcare fields. The letter, which can be found HERE, is notable for being signed by both men and women, which is essential in my view, to moving the ball down the field (yes boys, girls can also use sports analogies!). The letter, is intended to establish a broad industry commitment to gender diversity in hiring and “provide recommendations for best practices to establish gender diversity as a priority for the biopharma industry,” and recognizes that the effort described was catalyzed by LifeSci Advisor’s 2016 party foul. The letter is even signed by one of that firm’s partners, who has apparently undergone gender diversity conversion therapy. Hey, let’s give the guy a hand for seeing the light. If we don’t convince the establishment to change, nothing happens.
In fact, this is really the plot of the movie Hidden Figures – you can teach an old white male dog new tricks but it’s damn hard. This movie is, by the way, a don’t miss cinematic event. I am telling you, it blew my mind to watch those women defy both the gender and race biases of their time at a conservative organization like NASA in the 1960s. A damn inspiration and if you have any kids, male or female, they should be taken to see it as a way of helping all of our future overcome both intentional and unintentional bias in the workplace. The three women in the movie, who went on to become NASA’s first female engineer, NASA’s first female computer programming supervisor and the woman who did the math that made virtually all of the key early space missions possible, including the Apollo 11 flight to the moon. Oh yeah, and they’re also all African American women in the south in the 1960’s. If you saw David Shaywitz’s story about Evidation Health’s CEO, Deb Kilpatrick, you know it was hard for white women in the 1989 to succeed in the aerospace industry so I can only imagine what these earlier ladies experienced.
The impact of the movie was further amplified for me as I participated in the first meeting of the NASA Translational Research Institute Scientific Advisory Board last week. I was kind of blown away to be invited onto this advisory board alongside astronauts and Nobel prize winners and scientists of international acclaim. I guess they needed a token political scientist. I told them that the closest I had come to their league was once being threatened with a ticket for trying to park in the Nobel Laureate parking lot at UC Berkeley when I was cutting corners because I was arriving late to teach my class (true story). But one of the things that stood out about this advisory board was that it was highly gender diverse (4 of 9 are women and many of the staff leadership as well). And I happened to notice that even more since I had seen Hidden Figures the night before. Wow, it seems to have stuck over there at NASA. It made me optimistic, albeit not for my own parking options.
And then the March. Wow. To see literally millions of women and men around the world peacefully joining together in solidarity around women’s right to be recognized, respected, and supported in healthcare and life – it was an inspiration. The last time this happened, women got the vote. In fact, Susan B. Anthony is famed for saying, “Men, their rights, and nothing more; women, their rights, and nothing less.” And that’s what the Women’s March was all about.
It’s not clear what the results of any of this will be in the short term, but in the long term I am hopeful. I recently joined a venture capital program (at GE) in which a majority of the leadership are women. Never thought I’d see that in my lifetime and it is awesome. And it is particularly awesome for not being “a thing” there. It’s just normal. And everyone works together just fine. And sometimes the ladies’ room is crowded and that is a trade-off I am delighted to make. And as a note to the 90%+ of venture capitalists who are men and particularly the subset who are less enlightened: despite women entering the field, the apocalypse has not begun – think about hiring some women next time there’s an opening. We promise not to wear our pink hats to the office.