This Date in UCSF History: Women's Issues Persist

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Originally published in Synapse on March 6, 2008. No matter what some may claim, the issue of gender equality has not become obsolete.

The question of what it means to be a woman in society — in the home, in the workplace, or in the White House — has evolved to address new complexities.

Today, more women attend college than men, but women still earn less money, receive tenure less often, and no U.S. President has yet to boast an XX karyotype.

Strangely, the idea that being a woman is somehow confounding or even problematic persists today in modern dialogue.

Despite the fact that women such as the late Benazir Bhutto have served as prime ministers and presidents of numerous countries across the globe, U.S. political pundits this year have spilled gallons of ink fretting over the ramifications of Hillary Clinton’s gender.

Lest you fear that the issue of gender has become a quaint relic of the past, listen to what Senator Clinton said this week to the New York Times: “I think a lot of women project their own feelings and their lives on to me, and they see how hard this is. It’s hard. It’s hard being a woman out there.”

Political bellyaching? Poignant lament?

Senator Clinton may be singing the blues, but she touches upon a very real and relevant issue.

What exactly does it mean to be a woman today? For someone at UCSF, what does it mean today to be an intelligent and ambitious woman embarking on a scientific career?

In 2005, former Harvard president Larry Summers ignited a blaze of controversy when he argued that innate differences between men and women may partly account for disparities in their performances in math and science.

Although he later resigned, only to be replaced by Harvard’s first female president, the question of whether there are significant and innate cognitive differences between the sexes continues to haunt the scientific community.

Do men and women have brains that are fundamentally different?

During a clinical interlude in psychiatry last year, I had the honor of meeting Dr. Louann Brizendine, a UCSF faculty member and author of the best-selling book The Female Brain.

Dr. Brizendine’s book, which argues that the female brain is significantly different, has garnered a fair amount of reviews and controversy.

Do men have more spatial intelligence and an affinity for math and science? Are women more interested in communication and writing?

Dr. Brizendine may be right... maybe the brains of males and females are completely different, but we are walking a dangerous line between social determinism and biological fact.

The strongest argument for promoting the idea that men and women have fundamentally different brain structures is that our knowledge of these differences will result in more effective therapies, targeted treatments and “enlightened thinking.”

For instance, children were considered to be “miniature adults” in the 18th century, but the modern era considers children to be people at a special developmental stage.

Women are different from men; however, are we opening a Pandora’s Box of inequality and half-baked stereotypes?

If there truly is a significant biological difference between the brains of men and women, then obviously it is our responsibility to research, investigate, explain and support our findings in a responsible manner.

Female brain aside, I wanted to touch upon one last contemporary issue that concerns many career-oriented women in science (and other fields): how do we balance a career in healthcare with the demands of raising a family?

As Rajesh Jaganath (MS2) remarks, “One of the themes that comes up (whether intentionally or not) when talking about even having a women’s issue is this vague sense of ‘progress.’

“And I think most would concede that over the last fifty years, there have been advances towards greater gender equality. At the same time, many would also concede that the progression is incomplete.

“But that begs the questions, how do we know when we’re there? What’s the endpoint we’re shooting for? How do we monitor this sense of progress?

“Equality is one of those things we have a tough time defining, but American society’s consumer-driven mentality likes to be able to measure, compare, chart and customize, so it feels like we should have some sort of metric.

“On the one hand we could take a comparable variable, namely race. In which case it feels like the dominant philosophy (albeit flawed on a lot of levels) is this sense that in the end when adjusted for factors such as distribution in the workforce, education, etc. should roughly mirror the proportions in the given population.

“In the case of women, however, one roadblock in adopting similar methodologies is childbirth — this inherent inequality.

“For women for whom childbirth doesn’t enter into their decision process, you might expect things to even out. But there are those for whom it is an issue, and it may affect what they choose to do and where they choose to work.

“Also, firms are often expected to explicitly state the extent they are willing to accommodate women — firms with a lot of fungible resources at hand can afford more liberal policies than resource poor ones.

“Basically, the question is how do you create a target for a system where there are inherent inequalities that the system actually wants to preserve?”

Given that the issue of gender spans contemporary topics ranging from Hillary’s bid for the Oval Office, a former Harvard President’s remarks on women in science, a UCSF professor’s bestselling book entitled The Female Brain, and medical students’ musings on how childbirth affects gender equality we can assert that the question of gender remains viable and acutely relevant even today.

Is there still a “women’s issue”?

Yes, but you may not recognize it lately because it wears a white coat and assumes the gender-neutral prefix