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Candace B. Pert

Basically, you can see how wonderfully women have gone from being one or two percent of the medical school classes and graduate school programs in the 40’s, 50’s, and even 60’s, compared to today when most of them are now at fifty percent. It’s even sky rocketed up in the armed forces medical school. The armed forces is a big deal. They have commandant, and they’re getting up to forty. So there’s progress, but then when you get to a certain point, it’s the glass ceiling all over again. When you get to the percentage of women who are department chairs or deans, then it just starts to plummet. For example, Georgetown University, where I am, has only one female department head in the whole medical school. 

This is a terrible thing to say, but more and more, I’m appreciating that there are certain innate tendencies and patterns that people have, and women, on the whole, truly are less aggressive than men. They’re less able to toot their own horn, and are more able to promote others, and work as a team. These are not things that make them wonderful people, but don’t necessarily let them rise to be the head of the department or full professor. That’s what some of the women think–that the women are just not down there complaining enough, and they’re not aggressive enough. So if that’s what it’s about, then women are different, and then you might say, oh, it’s never going to happen.

But since they’re also incredibly talented maybe there’s going to be some shift in how we perceive the way science should really be done. For example, like right now in the AIDS field, there’s this thing about the experts, and who gets the most money. It’s almost an entirely male dominated field, and maybe people will learn that the women really make an unusually high number of breakthroughs for their numbers. They’re sort of like the Swedes of Science. There’s very few Swedish scientists, but they’ve discovered all kinds of incredible things. I think women are that way, although a lot of times they don’t actually get full credit for what they do, since they do have this innate tendency to be less pushy. Not me, of course. (laughter)

David:   Can you talk a little about the positive potential that you see for combined male/female energy in research labs?

Candace: Oh, of course that’s the ultimate–the two working together, the male-female energy. One obvious example is husband and wife teams. I work, and have worked, really closely with my wonderful husband Michael Ruff for many years. This allows you to have a real “mind meld”, particularly if it’s another person who has a different background. Michael is a immunologist/virologist and I’m a neuroscientist. Strangely enough–I don’t know if we created this with our minds or if it was an independent event–but it turns out that now more and more people are appreciating the neuroinflammatory aspects of many diseases. We see this from Parkinson’s to Alzheimer’s, and even schizophrenia and autism. We’ve spent a lot of time talking about pioneering in this the idea that the brain and the immune system really are communicating. It started out being “closely connected”, but now there’s also kinds of cell sharing. 

Male and female energy–just get more women in the lab, and then you’ll have more male and female energy! There’s nothing wrong with funding initiatives so that more women can get their own money. There’s so many terrific women that wind up as being like kind of gal-Fridays, or fabulous first lieutenants for men. You see that all the time. It’s kind of an amazing how the scientific system lends itself to that. You have a hierarchy. The person who gets the most money gets the post-docs, and can pay someone to stay on. And even through their title is Assistant Professor or even Associate Professor, they’re kind of often indebted to the big alpha male. So I think there should be some funding initiatives to get more women as heads of their own labs, and financially independent of men. That’s another thing I’m learning in my old age (laughter)–money is power.

David:   Why do you think it’s so difficult to get new ideas accepted in science?

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