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“… a neglected variable: Females”

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As Jill Abramson leaves the New York Times, our Sunday Comics author examines the framing of the story - and some new scientific research into the Y chromosome - in the US media

Jim Gabour
18 May 2014

What a day was Thursday, 15 May 2014.  Especially for women.  In media.  Top-flight international media. 

In New York City came the announcement that Jill Abramson was summarily fired from her position as Executive Editor of one of the nation’s few remaining premiere publications, The New York Times.  The same day a story made headlines that, in Paris, Natalie Nougayrède had been forced to resign as Editor in Chief of France’s most prominent newspaper, Le Monde.

It seems nobody liked either woman, either their bosses or their peers.  So go the hindsight reports.  Each had been the first female to be awarded the top editorial post at their two newspapers, and both went on to aggressively place their respective agendas and personal stamps on the publications. Ms Abramson’s romance with her editorial partners lasted 28 months. Ms Nougayrède’s skirmishes, 14 months.

As early as March 20 the leaders of Le Monde had declared, at the end of what their own paper called a “rather billowy bit of committee writing”, that Ms Nougayrède:

… blurred the editorial skyline and made arbitrary choices which could accelerate a loss of expertise for our newspaper, in the domains of environment, economy, and social issues, and result in the proliferation of posts already abolished as part of our plan to make the paper more agile in the marketplace.

Similarly, the Times reported in its 14 MAY piece on Ms Abramson’s firing that:

… as a leader of the newsroom, she was accused by some of divisiveness and criticized for several of her personnel choices, in particular the appointment of several major department heads who did not last long in their jobs.

With Mr. Sulzberger more closely monitoring her stewardship, tensions between Ms. Abramson and Mr. Baquet [the Managing Editor who now succeeds her] escalated. In one publicized incident, he angrily slammed his hand against a wall in the newsroom. He had been under consideration for the lead job when Ms. Abramson was selected and, according to people familiar with his thinking, he was growing frustrated working with her.

Physicality was the order of the day at the Times.  Ms Abramson in particular seems concretely hard-hit by the jilt, as the Times reported in its first tale of the break-up that, “She recently got a tattoo of The Times’s gothic ‘T’ on her back.”  This must surely indicate some idea of how long she thought she might stay at the paper. 

But how many bikers do I know who are still walking around with “Jenny Forever” permanently scrawled in large rose-draped letters on their right arms and “Mary Lou”  carved with a large bursting enclosing heart on their left?  I do hope Ms Abramson’s tattoo is low enough on her back that she will not feel the need to wear overly-large one-piece swimsuits at the beach rather than reveal the breach of faith.  And hopefully she did not also put a Wall Street Journal logo on any fleshy parts down there before she previously left that paper.  Though I rather think a list of occupations embedded for all time on one’s torso might be a grand indication of commitment to one’s employment, and also might make for a rather fetching display of one’s CV upon personal interview for new jobs. 

There is, however, more to this story than two people being fired.  It is the conscious/unconscious literal framing of the story that makes it more significant.  Here is the actual Times story cut from its front page:

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There it is:  “Labs Are Told to Start Including a Neglected Variable: Females”. Actually the article is about how medical investigation is slower relating to women rather than men:   

“Researchers avoided using female animals for fear that their reproductive cycles and hormone fluctuations would confound the results of delicately calibrated experiments.

That laboratory tradition has had enormous consequences for women. Name a new drug or treatment, and odds are researchers know far more about its effect on men than on women. From sleeping pills to statins, women have been blindsided by side effects and dosage miscalculations that were not discovered until after the product hit the market…

…Women now make up more than half the participants in clinical research funded by the institutes, but it has taken years to get to this point, and women still are often underrepresented in clinical trials carried out by drug companies and medical device manufacturers.

Partly as a result, women experience more severe side effects from new treatments, studies have shown. The Food and Drug Administration last year told women to cut in half their doses of the sleeping pill Ambien, for example, because new studies showed they metabolize the active ingredient more slowly than men do.

Although statins are the most widely prescribed drugs in America, they were tested mostly in men, and evidence of their benefit to women is limited. Indeed, women respond differently from men to a broad array of treatments, and often do not derive the same benefits from them as men.

The ideas for new treatments are often generated in the laboratory, where gender bias in basic biomedical research and neuroscience is ingrained.

Bias in mammalian test subjects was evident in eight of 10 scientific disciplines in an analysis of published research conducted by Irving Zucker, a professor of psychology and integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley. The most lopsided was neuroscience, where single-sex studies of male animals outnumbered those of females by 5.5 to 1.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom in laboratories, there is far more variability among males than among females on a number of traits and behaviors, Dr. Zucker has found. Yet even when researchers study diseases that are more prevalent in women — anxiety, depression, thyroid disease and multiple sclerosis among them — they often rely on male animals, according to another analysis led by Dr. Zucker, who has written extensively on gender bias in scientific research.

I am not saying that “male standards” were used in evaluating Ms Abramson, even though Mr Baquet’s reported wall slapping does seem to have a taste of testosterone about it, but it is hugely ironic that in a newspaper that is noted for its page pairings of related subjects, these two articles adjoin.

Let me disclose here, admittedly rather late in this tale, that I personally know Jill Abramson, have sat to table with her a couple of times, including cooking “gumbo ma mère”  for her and her husband at my own home here in New Orleans, and have found her both a most amiable creature and an entertaining conversationalist.  She also instituted a number of extension programs from the NY newspaper to benefit public schools here, one of the first of such programs to be initiated after Hurricane Katrina.  She valued my town, even in its weakened state, and I personally thought a great deal of her for that care. 

Which is, of course, far from living under deadline pressure with her for twenty-eight months in a Manhattan newsroom.

However, there is one more editorial coincidence that had sat on my desk until the writing of this story, an article I cut out of the Times back on 24 APR and upon which I had scribbled notes these last three weeks.  It was a little further back in the paper, on page A4,

You see, besides absorbing information online -- like you are indeed reading this – I get a number of printed paper bundles every morning, including the daily New York Times, the occasional Wall Street Journal and the daily New Orleans Advocate.   And I find that not only do articles carry their own weight, but often feed off how they are framed on the page.  As I said, the Times is notorious for this very trait, leading the reader from one article of personal interest to another related bit of info right beside it.  Like the two mentioned above.

And thus the 24 April print story, entitled “Researchers See New Importance in Y Chromosome”.  Am I the only person in the world who did not know that the human animal by default, is female?

There is new reason to respect the diminutive male Y chromosome.

Besides its long-known role of reversing the default state of being female, the Y chromosome includes genes required for the general operation of the genome, according to two new surveys of its evolutionary history.

These genes may represent a fundamental difference in how the cells in men’s and women’s bodies read off the information in their genomes.

When researchers were first able to analyze the genetic content of the Y chromosome, they found it had shed hundreds of genes over time, explaining why it was so much shorter than its partner, the X chromosome. All cells in a man’s body have an X and a Y chromosome; women’s have two X chromosomes.

The finding created considerable consternation. The Y had so few genes left that it seemed the loss of a few more could tip it into extinction.

But an analysis in 2012 showed that the rhesus monkey’s Y chromosome had essentially the same number of genes as the human Y. This suggested that the Y had stabilized and ceased to lose genes for the last 25 million years, the interval since the two species diverged from a common ancestor.

So, whew, the human race is not about to become all female.  Though its predecessors may have been so, since the study cited by Dr. Henrik Kaessmann of the University of Lausanne in Switzerland in the article notes “that the Y chromosome originated 181 million years ago, after the duck-billed platypus split off from other mammals but before the marsupials did so.”  My god, Doc, are you telling me that we macho boys, and our affiliated male body parts, came into being as a split off a …  platypus

Actually, that might confirm some of the barroom behavior I witnessed while at University. 

“’We are only beginning to understand the full extent of the differences in molecular biology of males and females,’ Andrew Clark, a geneticist at Cornell University, wrote in a commentary in Nature on the two reports.”

There was the report.  But in the NYT on page A4 it was bounded on the printed sheet by a semi-naked gent in a Calvin Klein men’s jockey shorts ad, and a feature story on American men’s football stars at universities voting to unionize their sweaty amateur selves. 

Like they say in real estate, Dr. Clark, you may think it’s molecular biology but it’s all about location, location, location.

In the imaginations of the male hordes who flock to science fiction, this prospect has seemed real for at least half a century.  In 1958’s “Wild Women of Wongo” the women do have some men around, but mostly the guys -- with really bad hair-do’s -- just sit around the campfires smoking odd substances.

While the women are wrestling crocodiles and generally making the world go round:   

 

There seems to have been a lot of this going around, enough for a triple-feature re-release:

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The Y chromosome was definitely on the ebb in Wongo-esque movies.  “Bowanga Bowanga” (1951) subtitled “White Sirens of Africa”, actually preceded it, and “Virgin Sacrifice” (1959) followed up, though when the females were deleted for the censored version, it became the curiously emasculated “Fury of the Jungle”

Then there was Peter Bogdanovich’s “Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women” from 1968.  

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This had been adapted from Curtis Harrington’s prior “Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet”, which may have been good, but unfortunately skipped the all-important female angle. 

And consequently did not have Mamie Van Doren as its voluptuously under-clad starlet:

 

Naturally, Bogdanovich’s film was seen by much larger audiences, in actuality and metaphorically.  Naturally to Hollywood, this spun off the even-more-awesomely delusional “Women of the Prehistoric Planet” in 1969:

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This loss of the male chromosome has continued as a matter of speculation .  I have seen at least half a dozen television sci-fi series in the last decade (I own all half-dozen series on DVD) that suggested that the all-dominant-girl planets would be particularly nasty for intruding gents to fathom, and survive. 

The original “Star Trek” and most of its spin-offs – Voyager, Next Generation, the new young Star Trek prequel -- have all at least devoted one episode to the subject, inspiring one audio parody I discovered on a web series called “The Freakshow”, an episode called “star trek planet of woman”.  Interestingly enough, since the piece was put online almost three years to the day, on 20 MAY 2011, I was only the 23rd person to view it.

The world is different depending on the place from which it is viewed, in what perspective, and in whose company it is viewed.  And whether there are X and/or Y chromosomes present. 

In the world.  Just like in Le Monde.  Or The Times. 

In any case, good luck on the prehistoric planet, Ms Nougayrède.   Good luck, Jill Abramson.  The Xs may yet win out. 

It seems all a matter of placement.

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