When it comes to reckoning with the role of women in society, it can sometimes be difficult to know whether we’re in a period of enlightened new awareness or blithe ignorance.
So it is that today’s news features stories on a major Boston hospital rethinking the prominent posting of portraits of the all-male cast of its past medical luminaries alongside a report that those attending a global biotech conference last week in Boston were regaled by a woman dancer who bore nothing above her waist other than a crown of flowers in her hair — while the names of an investment firm and biotech company were painted on her abdomen and thigh.
That was the description of one of at least two women apparently hired to perform at an event known as the Party At BIO Not Associated With BIO, or PABNAB, an unsanctioned add-on to the annual biotech convention known for bringing “over-the-top themes” to the global networking event.
The chairman of the firm Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, who serves as chairman of the trade group that puts on BIO, told STAT reporter Rebecca Robbins he was “horrified” to learn that this year’s over-the-top antics included women dancers with no tops. He said any companies sponsoring “PABNAB” in the future will be kicked out of the trade group.
One woman leader in the field defended the event to the website BioCentury, which was the first to report on it. Martina Molsbergen, CEO of a consulting group that co-organizes PABNAB, called the party “edgy and artsy.”
But officials from two companies whose logos were seen featured on a dancer saw it differently. “We just can’t have our name associated with such disgusting objectification of women,” said Pierre Vannineuse, CEO of investment firm Alpha Blue Ocean.
At the same time that the biotech world is confronting the highly visible role of women who served as topless advertising marquees at a big networking bash, others are considering the many ways women are all but invisible in society. At Brigham and Women’s Hospital, officials plan to disperse throughout the facility the 31 portraits — all of them men — that currently hang in a prominent auditorium. The men are all retired chairs of hospital departments. Almost half of all residents and training fellows today at the hospital are women. Brigham president Betsy Nabel said it’s time to consider “respecting our past in a different way.”
Meanwhile, Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham wonders what messages are sent when 75 Boston public schools are named after men and just 10 honor women. “Can’t Boston do better than this?” she asks. (There is now some movement in the school department to do just that.)
The backdrop for the dissonant stories on the role of women, of course, is the #MeToo movement and new reckoning with issues of sexual harassment.
Which may — or may not — connect to another story in the news, the sudden departure of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care CEO Eric Schultz. The company announced this week that he was resigning because of behavior “inconsistent” with the giant health insurer’s values, but offered no further details.
That explanation is hardly adequate, says the Herald’s Joe Battenfeld. “Citing unspecified ‘behavior’ is not enough. Not even close,” writes Battenfeld. As a huge nonprofit regulated by the state Division of Insurance and attorney general’s office, Harvard Pilgrim must publicly disclose financial information. It owes the public a similar degree of transparency on the circumstances surrounding its chief executive’s departure, says Battenfeld.
A somewhat similar question may arise at the Boston Globe, which has dropped a lawsuit against one-time employee Hilary Sargent, who has charged that sexual harassment and inappropriate conduct has been a persistent problem at the paper. Sargent has said for months that she is eager to share what she knows with Globe executives, an offer they did not respond to. If they now take her up on that offer, how much of what they learn and do in response will be shared publicly?