May 20, 2021

Unsung Women Heroes: The Doctor Who May Have Saved Us from COVID-19

Dr. Kati Kariko is a 66-year-old Hungarian immigrant who spent most of her career obscured, lingering on the fringes of academia. She rarely received grants, never had her own lab, and never earned more than $60,000—far below the salaries of her male counterparts. Yet she persevered in her research, undeterred, for four decades. Her pioneering work in messenger RNA (mRNA) is the basis for the COVID-19 vaccines developed by Pfizer and Moderna. Hers is not a unique story; she is one of countless women who find themselves discounted or undervalued in society and the workforce. And she quite possibly helped save the world from this pandemic, like a hero, like a boss. How much more could she have accomplished sooner through the support she deserved? How much more evidence do we need to take diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) seriously?

A Hero’s Journey

The daughter of a butcher, Kariko had dreamed of a career in science since childhood. She eventually earned her Ph.D. at the University of Szeged. But in 1985, the program’s funding ran dry. Kariko, her husband, and their 2-year-old daughter then headed for America to continue research that she felt was imperative and groundbreaking, though most of her colleagues disagreed. The Hungarian government allowed emigrating citizens to take only $100 out of the country, so the family sewed about £900 into their child’s stuffed bear. In the United States, Kariko’s fortunes didn’t improve. 

“For her entire career,” wrote Gina Kolata for the New York Times, “Dr. Kariko has focused on messenger RNA, or mRNA — the genetic script that carries DNA instructions to each cell’s protein-making machinery. She was convinced mRNA could be used to instruct cells to make their own medicines, including vaccines.”

“But for many years her career at the University of Pennsylvania was fragile,” Kolata continued. “She migrated from lab to lab, relying on one senior scientist after another to take her in. She never made more than $60,000 a year.”

Dr. Kariko’s struggles hit a familiar note among scientists. She needed grants to pursue her ideas, which seemed “wild and fanciful” to peers. Ironically, more mundane research continued to be rewarded. But was her work as unorthodox as others made it out to be? Doctors, including Fauci, have long believed that mRNA research could hold the key to transformative vaccines for H.I.V., malaria, and the pesky flu that resurfaces every year. 

“When your idea is against the conventional wisdom that makes sense to the star chamber, it is very hard to break out,” said Dr. David Langer, a neurosurgeon who has worked with Dr. Kariko.

Still, though, it’s hard to read about Kariko’s story as just the trials and tribulations facing researchers with bold visions. The other scientists with whom Kariko partnered all received grants or landed lucrative positions at big pharma companies or labs. They too were working on the same mRNA studies with her. But unlike Kariko, they were male. It’s hard to ignore the disparity in their outcomes. 

Consider this 2020 scholarly research from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), authored by Junming Huang, Alexander J. Gates, Roberta Sinatra, and Albert-László Barabási:

There is extensive, yet fragmented, evidence of gender differences in academia suggesting that women are underrepresented in most scientific disciplines and publish fewer articles throughout a career, and their work acquires fewer citations… We find that, paradoxically, the increase of participation of women in science over the past 60 years was accompanied by an increase of gender differences in both productivity and impact. Most surprisingly, though, we uncover two gender invariants, finding that men and women publish at a comparable annual rate and have equivalent career-wise impact for the same size body of work.

In other words, men and women in science are producing about the same amount of work at the same level of quality. Yet, the women receive far less credit. In some cases, the authors of the study noted that the rate of women scientists leaving the field contributed somewhat. But this attrition also seemed rooted in how women at these institutions were treated. In summary, the paper’s authors concluded, “This finding suggests that we must rephrase the conversation about gender inequality around the sustainability of women's careers in academia, with important administrative and policy implications.”

Global Gender Inequality

In 2015, the World Economic Forum rated 142 countries on the basis of women’s equality, using a binary ranking system: 0 represented no equality while 1 signified full equality. And even Iceland, the world’s most egalitarian culture in this respect, achieved only a score of 0.881. It was close, yet it revealed the limitations that endure. More distressing was the United States, which dropped eight spots from previous years with a score of 0.740. Two years before that, America had occupied the 20th position. In 2015, it fell to 28. 

Gender parity efforts were already stilted. The pandemic, and its tremendous impact of women professionals, has further hobbled progress. Most recently, the World Economic Forum said, “Another generation of women will have to wait for gender parity, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2021. As the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to be felt, closing the global gender gap has increased by a generation from 99.5 years to 135.6 years.”

  • Globally, the average distance completed to parity is at 68%, a step back compared to 2020
  • The gender gap in Political Empowerment remains the largest of the four gaps tracked, with only 22% closed to date, having further widened since the 2020 edition of the report by 2.4 percentage points
  • Widening gender gaps in Political Participation have been driven by negative trends in some large countries which have counterbalanced progress in another 98 smaller countries.
  • Life expectancy for U.S. women has dropped to 67 years compared to 70.1 years in 2016.
  • In terms of Economic Participation and Opportunity, America is ranked 30th.

Because of the pandemic’s stifling effect, the obstacles for women have likely increased. “Employees have adapted to the additional challenges of working from home, and there is some early evidence to suggest that male and female workers are showing new patterns of behaviour,” the World Economic Forum explained. “Additional, tentative evidence reveals those behavioural shifts might also be engendering changes to wages and progression to leadership roles, with women distinctly less likely to seek out a promotion or pay rise than men in the current context.”

The Problem with the Pipeline Problem

Most workforce studies reinforce that some concepts of “cultural fit” remain self-fulfilling and misguided prophecies, where team members seek out others exactly like themselves. In the technology industry, which historically has been dominated by men, that interpretation of cultural fit can squelch real inclusion. 

When Google released its diversity data in 2014, the results caused quite a stir. Only 2% of its employees were Black, and 3% were Latinx. The vast majority of the workforce was male. Like many companies confronted with similar numbers, Google fell back on the “pipeline excuse.” The gist is that the pipeline of qualified applicants does not represent society as a whole. Basically, organizations in this position rationalize their lopsided figures by saying that too few qualified diversity candidates are applying for positions. 

The explanation fails to explain away noticeable gaps between highly skilled diversity applicants and the volume of those individuals who are actually hired. According to Department of Education data, colleges and universities are graduating underrepresented groups of computer science students at twice the rate they’re being hired by companies. 

Women Innovators Stand in a Dimmer Spotlight

Women have been equal pioneers in the history of technological and scientific achievements. Without the genius of Katherine Johnson, the moon landing may never have occurred. Johnson, an African-American woman, calculated the trajectories for the missions that sent the first Americans into space and to the moon. She was so accurate that when NASA began using computers, they called her to verify the numbers. Since Johnson’s time at the agency, 58 women have flown into space. NASA’s not alone. Also consider other innovations we wouldn’t have today without women.

  • The COBOL computer language conceived by Dr. Grace Murray Hopper
  • The uncrackable radio codes invented by Austrian actress Hedy Lamarr
  • The Blissymbol printer created by a 12-year-old Rachel Zimmerman, which enabled non-speaking people to communicate
  • Kevlar body armor, brought to us by Stephanie Kwolek
  • Marie Curie’s groundbreaking research on radioactivity
  • The COVID-19 vaccine and all other potential vaccines made possible by Dr. Kariko’s tireless contributions to mRNA research

Achieving Inclusion, Equity, and Belonging

One of the first things we can do is change our messaging, our employment brand, and the way we communicate. DEIB should be promoted as a core company value—a mandate and a way of working together as a team. This transcends attempts to enforce hiring quotas based on diversity categories. Our work policies and philosophies must inherently foster inclusion to ensure that members of underrepresented groups thrive in our organizations. And the road to equity starts with simple steps.

  • Examine all decisions concerning recruitment, compensation, promotions, employee recognition, and management structures to ensure that no single group carries a clear advantage over another.
  • Create a team of diversity champions, across all employment levels of the enterprise, to advise on fair and inclusive processes for retention, recognition, skills coaching, effective management techniques, bias prevention education, performance and compensation reviews, and more.
  • Stop tokenizing DEIB leaders. Too often we hear stories about the lone Black woman in the office who gets thrust into the role of a DEIB leader, although her career goals may be focused on other pursuits. Find people who are passionate about it, who want the task, and whose life experiences have been informed by their upbringing in diverse groups. Also foster a sense of genuine allyship among sympathetic leaders who may not be considered diverse but champion the ideals of diversity. 
  • Set inclusiveness goals and hold managers accountable.
  • Develop and implement merit-based hiring strategies that emphasize ideal cultural fits, not friendship fits, that align to the organization’s overarching strategies and objectives. These strategies focus on filling key positions with the best people across diverse groups, eliminating perceptions that people are hired to fill quotas.
  • Make sure that executive sponsors involve themselves as inclusion advocates, reinforcing diversity commitments, measuring progress toward goals, and establishing formal review processes for identifying challenges.
  • Review employment data from internal HR systems. People analytics enable us to identify talent trends, traits, skills, values and goals to optimize the recruiting process. They can also uncover areas with the poorest track records in diverse hiring and engagement.

There exist no differences in skills, intelligence, dedication, performance, and abilities across genders, races, ethnicities, or any other categories you want to assign. The only differences are inequalities in workplace pay and treatment. We have the opportunity to eradicate these disparities and embrace the contributions of women who will define success in this century and the next. But we must include them, treat them as equals, pay them as equals, and allow them just as powerful a voice as we lend to men. 

Photo by Bill Oxford on Unsplash

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