The glass ceiling needs to be broken, but how?

I was looking for a binder to stuff my research articles in, when I got the idea for this post. Although this instinctive binder-to-women connection is a hat-tip to Romney—and probably the only thing I’ll remember him for—this topic has so deeply percolated into rhetoric and our daily lives, that it keeps ticking in all of us, on some level, regardless of gender. It evokes responses in magnitude and passion, probably second only to religion.


Did Rosin alert her sons to their impending end?

I write this at a time when there are studies showing how women are not only on the road to out-earning men, but also, ushering in matriarchy (I think Hanna Rosin took a holiday from logic on that one). The numbers, however aren’t nearly as rosy, with a wage gap range of 18-19 cents per dollar based on weekly earnings to the oft-cited 23 cents based on annual wages. This has spiderwebbed into—of all things—a sense of hair splitting paranoia about discrimination against women.


I am a feminist, and I believe that women should get equal rights and opportunities, and shouldn’t be discriminated against. And, yes, there are very few things I believe in with a fiery passion than that we should get paid equally for equal work. But, what I don’t believe—and this took some ratiocination to come to terms with—is that it can be forced. It is common opinion that legislating ‘leveling the playing field’ reforms would alleviate the problem. I disagree. Providing equal opportunities for women to compete with men in the market is poles apart from having government mandated policies that force employers to treat women differently in a feeble attempt to compensate for the parochial past. It is in the very nature of affirmative action to subvert free-will and, further drive a wedge between the classes it is meant to homogenize.

But, the problem we face is impending, and relying purely on the vagaries of the market isn’t going to snap the gap either. So, what do we do?

I think we should begin by examining if active discrimination is a major contributor to this gap—and if so—take measures other than crippling an employer’s choice, to negate it.  There have been studies showing that discrimination does not have as much skin in the game, as touted to be. Rather, this bloated perception of discrimination probably pushes the more logical, facile reasons under the rug. Like sexist stereotyping—for example—which is often wrongly confused with discrimination. While stereotyping is involuntary, and due to years of socialization, discrimination is more actively controlled. That is not to say that we shouldn’t or cannot repair our instinct to stereotype; just that it is a slower process. And, it sure as hell will not vanish at the sight of force. For the discrimination that goes on, we need to take actions by making selection processes gender-neutral wherever amenable. Case in point: I work in the field of biomedical research, wherein a crucial source of income is federally funded grants. Grant application is one process that is perfectly suited for gender-neutral screening, à la the gender-blind music auditions which proved to be quite a game-changer.

Next comes the market forces. One would think that the differences in pay between business schools and liberal arts ought to be market-driven, but some cry the gender bias foul play in this too. Nothing could be further from the truth. The market has been and will always function on the edict of demand and supply. However PC you make it sound, the demand for a degree in liberal arts is insignificant when compared to say, finance. The fallacious attribution to gender bias could simply be because more men have gravitated towards such high paying jobs, as, traditionally they have had to bring in the doubloons. That is not to say that women aren’t driven to the high-paying jobs or men, to the arts, or even that women aren’t equally contributing to the coffers today. It simply means that the market rewards only those who supply what it needs, how it needs, at the lowest possible price. The way the scene is set now favors paying women less than men because women often trade in flexible work hours and perks for the dough. In short, as long as they can afford to pay women lesser, employers are going to pay them exactly so.

There are two ways to shift this equilibrium and it’s entirely in our hands: offer to work for less, so that eventually men are forced to lower their demand to compete with you, or, move the other direction—demand more. We might be turned down a lot more due to the historical market value and the hiring inertia of employers in the face of sexual harassment and pregnancy related liabilities, but it will happen eventually. If enough women aren’t willing to settle, and are of value to the business, only a rookie or a total jackass would lose them to his competitor. I believe there are measures we could take to make this happen. Women are known to take a beating when it comes to negotiating salaries—this could be changed by hiring a neutral negotiator; someone who evens the disadvantage or prejudice on part of the employer. Not only would this ensure women get a better deal, but shall also set the whole equilibrium-shift in motion. Furthermore, women could start companies of their own and make sure they pay men and women equally. Heck, they could even pay women more, to make a point, if they can afford it! It makes much more sense virally promoting such women and their products, than tether them to some mandated sum of money they must get paid.


We can do it…….without declaring war on men!

This way, once the employers are free to reward ability, at least the ones worth working for wouldn’t make the mistake of losing a valuable employee, and are more likely to accommodate their needs. It is important to remember that people’s notions do not change by coercion; they change when given the freedom to do so.

So, yes, the glass ceiling needs to be broken. But, not by holding a gun up to it.

Photo credits:

Mother inferior?—Wall Street Journal

Tumblr: feminism


My lab mouse, my hero


My first waking thought these days is not what jollies the day may bring or how much I miss my family in India, but how my lab mice must be doing. If you are a grad student working with animals, you are probably having a déjà vu right now. I think taking care of them and making sure not a single breath goes unnoticed is enough to cure the gravest case of ADHD. Lab animals are like children: you wake up in the wee hours to perform a surgery, monitor it every couple of hours until it frolics, examine its body for the tiniest scratch or hair roughening, nervously fix an appointment with the veterinarian when it refuses to eat. And just when you think you have done everything right, smug that you saved a life, the animal welfare people give a little tap on the shoulder and charge you with reckless endangerment.

“What now?”, you whimper after a thoroughly exhausting day. “Well” they reply, “There’s a little spot on your lab coat. You could have given the mouse an infection. The angle at which you wore your shoe covers is wrong. You could have contaminated the entire department. Also, the tip of your glove touched a mouse whisker during the surgery, thereby breaking sterility, and posing the risk of a fatal infection to the mouse. You should consider yourself lucky if the mouse lives, or else you are in for manslaughter”

You fantasize committing a first degree right there.

You might think that I am exaggerating for comic relief, but everything except the legal jargon is true. Every place of research doing more than a dime’s worth of animal studies has an animal welfare department being a pain in the wrong place. They pick and prod. They make an issue of logically insignificant details. They siphon the money off our grants to install security cameras monitored by secretaries paid to sit on their ass and take pictures of you picking your nose. They make you want to quit your research program and seek asylum in the Himalayas. All in the name of animal rights. This makes me wonder if I slept through some ecological overhaul because there’s no other way this sudden precedence of animal rights makes sense.

I admit I don’t go weak at the knees when I see animals. But, I don’t believe that animals should be cruelly slaughtered at our hands either. Sure, they are defenseless creatures that deserve a right to life without undue pain. The purview of animal welfare should end right there. But, it rarely does. It goes on to put animals right next to human beings in their right to life. The focus is not on the pain or suffering anymore but the morality of using animals for our gain. What is forgotten in this heart-melting love for animals, and I am walking on eggshells here, is: Not everything that lives has an equal right to life. This means it is not barbaric to give humans priority over animals when it comes to their lives.

There is a subtle double standard in the level of contempt for using animals as fodder and for research. Let’s not kid ourselves here; meat eaters take great joy in savoring the fruits of the jungle. We are not exactly picturing the animal squealing in pain while biting into the chunk. Why then the special vitriol reserved for animals used in research? I often see foie gras munching, bacon relishing hypocrites get all ‘holier-than-thou’ about pricking a mouse.  After all, is there a shred of doubt that the lifesaving therapies we have today—everything from aspirin to zolpidem—are a result of animal testing? Any opinion to the contrary would be just that, and a lousy, misinformed one at that.

The best case against the use of animals for research I have read so far is that there are ‘alternative methods’ of testing available. What are these methods, I pray ask? Computer simulations? Bacterial testing? As amazed as I am about technology constantly giving humans a run for their money, being able to predict with a fair degree of certainty, the efficacy and the safety of a drug is yet elusive to its robotic arms. Bacterial or any other microbial modeling might provide an insight at best, but cannot successfully model our complex physiological system. Are we seriously willing to let our animal-guilt make our medical choices? Pamela Anderson might settle for a lipstick that hasn’t touched a rabbit, but would she take a drug straight off the chemistry lab for say, cancer?


None of the things I wear were animal tested; not even the ones you are looking at!

To this you might say that you do not believe animal testing should be done away with, just that researchers should be constantly reminded what a grand privilege it is. I am taking that to mean less pain and suffering and probably less number of animals where necessary. I am with you on that. Pain relief is necessary where it is justifiable. But, what if the drug is being tested for shock or trauma? It makes no sense to test it on mice that are subjected to neither of those or confound the results by giving them pain killers that would mask the effect of shock. As far as the number of animals go, a consensus exists that the statistical power of most animal experiments is low—that is, it takes a  lot more animals to achieve reliability of the observed results. Thus, by reducing the number of animals indiscriminately, we are defeating the purpose of the experiment as well as dumping the data obtained from the very animals whose welfare we are talking about. Next comes the question of the regulatory steps that need to be taken to prevent cruel treatment. Regulation is necessary, but not to such an extent that it hampers the research it oversees. Researchers invest a lot monetarily as well as in time, for animal research. The cost of the animal, at least in the United States is prohibitively expensive and probably has some kind of ‘sin tax’ built into it. When a researcher is ready to take on the burden of the cost and comply with any justifiable pain relief procedure, isn’t it egregious to hold up the animal welfare card at every step?

Save some severely intrusive procedures on humans themselves, animal testing pioneers  drug discovery today. Period. If we feel the need to show our respect to the little creatures, I suggest we think of their contribution every time we pop a Tylenol!

After-birth abortion: five questions

It all began thus…

Thanks to Roe v. Wade, pregnancy no longer constitutes a legal contract to add a blip to the population radar. The inclusion of abortion as a fundamental right has emancipated millions of ‘don’t-want-to-be’ parents from forcibly raising children in a sub-par, resentful environment. There is enough evidence to suggest that the law was chiefly responsible for the decline in crime in the 1990s. While it continues to be a potent component of our political rhetoric, and has the capacity to incite the most anodyne of minds, there is no turning away from the fact that a pre-1973 scenario is almost unimaginable. However, this hasn’t nearly caulked the seething tension amongst people on either side of the law, with those on the extremes proposing the most equilibrium-disrupting reforms. The personhood stance of the right sermonizing that life begins at conception has been paraded with such heart-wrenching passion that the word abortion cannot be uttered in public without an involuntary tinge of guilt. The left, on the other hand, continues to push the proverbial line of life in the opposite direction, the latest and probably the most controversial stretch being the concept of ‘after-birth abortion,’ recently coined by Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva in their paper in the Journal of Medical Ethics and also discussed very well here.

I attach a high premium to individual liberty, and believe that the decision to carry a child to term is squarely the mother’s to make and it is certainly not the government’s job to intervene. But, this new idea of exercising the right to ‘abort’ after birth seems viscerally repugnant to say the least. What kind of selfish beast would suggest killing a perfectly healthy newborn? It was a little more than I could assimilate, but sparked enough curiosity to pore over the drab-looking journal article on a Saturday morning. I list below five nibbling questions I have about the issue:

1. Do fetuses and infants have the same moral status?

The authors argue that the circumstances that would warrant abortion (pre-birth) should also be valid for a short time after birth, on the premise that the moral status of an infant is equivalent to that of a fetus. Although the knee-jerk reaction to this claim would be to dismiss them as idiots, most would eventually admit that the logic is almost infallible. After all, what is the difference between a nine month old fetus and a newborn? The venue of their existence on either side of the birth canal, right? Is that enough to change the moral status?

This is exactly the question I haven’t been able to wrap my head around, and have to agree with the authors here. There is no moral difference. In light of this revelation, it wouldn’t be a leap to assume that newborns and fetuses have the same rights to life. That is, if one has a right to live, so does the other.

Does this make a fetus a person too? It’s ironic that the authors propose a ridiculously liberal choice and end up making an ironclad case for the pro-lifers.

Hey! I am just the messenger!

2. What makes you a person?

Having justified the moral equivalence of fetuses and newborns, the authors attempt to  defend the next logical milestone—how far into the life of a person can a line be drawn beyond which it is immoral to kill one?  What do you and I have that a newborn doesn’t?

This line of thought is not new to the field of ethics, and is avidly discussed in an essay by Michael Tooley as early as 1972. He posits that simply belonging to the Homo   sapiens species doesn’t provide the fetus a right to live. Only that which is able to attribute to its existence, some value, which would be taken away by killing it, has a right to live. Fetuses, though in a state of rapid development within the womb, are not aware of their existence and therefore, cannot attribute any value to their lives. This, he says, holds true for newborns too. Although they can survive on their own once born, they lack the mental nuance to attach value to their lives. The authors of the paper merely sum up Tooley’s ideology to defend their after-birth abortion stance: since newborns are not persons, ending their lives is not morally ambiguous.

I categorically reject Tooley’s as well as the feebly reproduced authors’ hypotheses, for two jarring reasons: By their flow of logic, comatose and mentally retarded adults—individuals who are unaware of either their existence or any value their lives might have—can be killed without a prick to the conscience, simply because they do not fit into the definition of a person. The second reason attacks the issue much more directly. One would expect a radical statement such as theirs to be backed up by scientific evidence—something that would make it clear as day, the characteristics that differentiate newborns and fetuses, from us. Not even close. Both Tooley and the authors merely speculate on fundamental questions like: When do newborns become persons? A month? A year? When do their brains discern their existence? When does the value-addition process kickstart? Not a single fact; just hunches.

3. Is there a line?

The moral equivalence of fetuses and newborns juxtaposed with the lack of solid evidence to establish the non-person status of newborns draws us close to a veritable cul-de-sac: can a reasonable line ever be drawn?

Some say it is justifiable to draw it at the point of ‘viability’ of the fetus (at about 23-24  weeks of gestation) after which it can sustain albeit with constant medical attention. This is the current legal scenario, with late-term abortions, save severe detriment to the mother’s health, illegal in most states. However, viability of the fetus, which itself is quite arbitrary, was never the crux of abortion rights. This has haunted the most liberal of pro-choicers, and I believe that the line, although imperfect, needs to be drawn at the point of birth for two reasons: The woman’s autonomy over the fetus for reasons of controlling her body ends at birth. Second, though the healthy development of the infant depends on the mother’s care, its existence no longer does. There is a conflict of interest here, which constitutes grounds for protection of the infant’s rights separate from the mother’s.

Am I a person or not? Just f***ing decide!

4. What about adoption?

The line is drawn. A child, once born is entitled to a life. But, there is one problem. What if you don’t want to raise it? You carried it to term, but due to some mitigating circumstances you find yourself unable or unwilling to raise it.  Although most would feel morally obligated to raise the child in such conditions, adoption springs out as a much better alternative, right?

The authors couldn’t disagree more. They say that the psychological distress of putting your child up for adoption, knowing that it is still out there, is disastrous to the woman’s health. Even more than killing a newborn, may I ask?

5. Where are the men?

I apologize for relegating the ‘fathers’ to the tail-end of the write-up, but it’s at least a tad better than Giubilini and Minerva, and for that matter, many more debating the issue of abortion, who conspicuously forget to mention the source of the Y chromosome. That having said, I do not even pretend to state that the man has an equal say in this issue; not at least as long as the woman is housing the fetus. Even then, I have my doubts about the absolute power of women, but that’s for another blog post. The fate of the newborn should be as much the father’s decision—at least for those who are invested in their children. Their wish to raise the child, even if the mother is unwilling to, shouldn’t be quelled to punish the notorious some who flee.

Thus, in addition to the flimsy ‘infants-are-not-persons’ stand, two plausible alternatives to killing a healthy newborn—adoption and the role of the father—are shamefully misrepresented in the defense for ‘after-birth abortion.’

Considering the current political climate, it is highly unlikely that such an issue would ever make it to the legislative table. And, rightly so. But, should that cork such debates questioning the morality of universal conventions? The authors may have based their hypothesis less on science and more on speculation, concluding that it is okay to kill cute, innocent babies. Should they be subjected to ad hominem attacks and death-threats for that? An idea, however abominable, is still just that, and needs to be let into the realm of free inquiry, open to be rationally deconstructed and then shot down. That is the beauty of the system, which I believe is the best way to stoke rational discourse that could someday be law.