Photo credit: Tamzin B. Smith Portrait Photography
We have fought this battle before. We fought, we won, and yet were unable to claim a total victory.
This is what ran through my head in 2017 when I was deciding whether to break my non-disclosure agreement with WNYC and talk publicly about the bullying and harassment I'd endured while working there. I wondered, "Are women doomed to fight the same battle over and over, generation after generation?"
As a journalist who had covered the issue of sexual harassment and discrimination for years, I already knew several facts about my situation.
- Tens of thousands of women had been in the same or similar situation
- Some had fought and won
- Some had fought and lost
- Neither the wins nor the losses had significantly changed the daily working lives of women
Before I decided what to do, I did even more research in the hopes that I could learn from what other women had gone through. As the novelist George Santayana once said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
One of the first stories I read was about Lisa Mays and the women who sued Wall Street. Mays was sexually assaulted while working at Smith Barney and she filed a class action suit against the firm, along with 22 other women. Almost 2,000 women ended up joining the suit, and Smith Barney paid $150 million dollars to settle the case.
One woman told the Washington Post at the time that "It's like they have a manual in their heads as to how to crush women." The case was nicknamed the "Boom-Boom-Room," after an actual room in the firm's Garden City office where male executives consumed vast amounts of alcohol, made lewd comments, and groped multiple women. Think The Wolf of Wall Street, but real life and no Leonardo DiCaprio.
The women who filed the suit were battling mandatory arbitration, a system that forced them to handle complaints within the company and generally take their sexual harassment and assault accusations to white, male arbitrators. One broker allegedly told his female employee that charges of sexual harassment would be dealt with in the Boom-Boom-Room.
Those brave women won their case and helped establish legal precedent for claims of sexual harassment in the workplace. And yet, here we are decades later and 55% of workers who report harassment are still subject to mandatory arbitration. That's more than double the number in the early 2000s. Despite the court victory in the 1990s, one Wall Street lawyer told the New York Times that about 90% of her clients are blocked from legal relief because of binding arbitration agreements. Furthermore, employers have found other ways to silence their workers, like the non-disclosure agreement that I signed when I took the job at WNYC. I chose to speak up in 2017, breaking the NDA that I signed and risking legal action.
One of the great benefits of hosting the show "Retro Report" on PBS is that our mission is to bring greater understanding of today's events by tracing them back to their roots in history. We talked about the #MeToo movement, for example, by telling the story of Lisa Mays and the other women who sued Smith Barney.
Knowing our history, as George Santayana implied, can give us context and insight to better inform our current experience. Even recent history can help. While mulling over my options in 2017, I called the other women who had preceded me in my position to hear what they'd endured and how they'd handled it.
Despite the lessons of both recent and distant history, I was faced with a decision between remaining silent and safe or speaking up to protect the future but risking retaliation. I may have learned from the past but my employers had not. Or, perhaps we had both just learned very different lessons.
A number of the women who were part of the Boom-Boom-Room suit now say that change has been incremental or non-existent in financial firms. If anything, they say, legal victories have simply made the harassment and discrimination more subtle than in was during the heyday of 1990s bro culture.
To quote another famous philosopher, Georg Hegel once said "We learn from history that we do not learn from history." Time and again, we see that mistakes of the past are made by ensuing generations in a never-ending cycle of bad choices with little retribution.
If we are to truly learn from history, it can only be done by examining our past with a clear and honest eye, not seeking to excuse or justify anyone but, instead, to avoid the errors of our elders. I've learned to never sign away my right to justice. I hope other women will learn the same lesson from my experience and the experience of all the women who have come before me. We have fought this battle before. It's time to claim true victory: an end to the contract clauses that seek to silence us.
With so many groundbreaking medical advances being revealed to the world every single day, you would imagine there would be some advancement on the plethora of many female-prevalent diseases (think female cancers, Alzheimer's, depression, heart conditions etc.) that women are fighting every single day.
For Anna Villarreal and her team, there frankly wasn't enough being done. In turn, she developed a method that diagnoses these diseases earlier than traditional methods, using a pretty untraditional method in itself: through your menstrual blood.
Getting from point A to point B wasn't so easy though. Villarreal was battling a disease herself and through that experience. “I wondered if there was a way to test menstrual blood for female specific diseases," she says. "Perhaps my situation could have been prevented or at least better managed. This led me to begin researching menstrual blood as a diagnostic source. For reasons the scientific and medical community do not fully understand, certain diseases impact women differently than men. The research shows that clinical trials have a disproportionate focus on male research subjects despite clear evidence that many diseases impact more women than men."
There's also no denying that gap in women's healthcare in clinical research involving female subjects - which is exactly what inspired Villarreal to launch her company, LifeStory Health. She says that, “with my personal experience everything was brought full circle."
“There is a challenge and a need in the medical community for more sex-specific research. I believe the omission of females as research subjects is putting women's health at risk and we need to fuel a conversation that will improve women's healthcare.,"
Her brand new biotech company is committed to changing the women's healthcare market through technology, innovation and vocalization and through extensive research and testing. She is working to develop the first ever, non-invasive, menstrual blood diagnostic and has partnered with a top Boston-area University on research and has won awards from The International Society for Pharmaceutical Engineering and Northeastern University's RISE.
How does it work exactly? Proteins are discovered in menstrual blood that can quickly and easily detect, manage and track diseases in women, resulting in diseases that can be earlier detected, treated and even prevented in the first place. The menstrual blood is easy to collect and since it's a relatively unexplored diagnostic it's honestly a really revolutionary concept, too.
So far, the reactions of this innovative research has been nothing but excitement. “The reactions have been incredibly positive." she shares with SWAAY. “Currently, menstrual blood is discarded as bio waste, but it could carry the potential for new breakthroughs in diagnosis. When I educate women on the lack of female subjects used in research and clinical trials, they are surprised and very excited at the prospect that LifeStory Health may provide a solution and the key to early detection."
To give a doctor's input, and a little bit more of an explanation as to why this really works, Dr. Pat Salber, MD, and Founder of The Doctor Weighs In comments: “researchers have been studying stem cells derived from menstrual blood for more than a decade. Stem cells are cells that have the capability of differentiating into different types of tissues. There are two major types of stem cells, embryonic and adult. Adult stem cells have a more limited differentiation potential, but avoid the ethical issues that have surrounded research with embryonic stem cells. Stem cells from menstrual blood are adult stem cells."
These stem cells are so important when it comes to new findings. “Stem cells serve as the backbone of research in the field of regenerative medicine – the focus which is to grow tissues, such as skin, to repair burn and other types of serious skin wounds.
A certain type of stem cell, known as mesenchymal stem cells (MenSCs) derived from menstrual blood has been found to both grow well in the lab and have the capability to differentiate in various cell types, including skin. In addition to being used to grow tissues, their properties can be studied that will elucidate many different aspects of cell function," Dr. Salber explains.
To show the outpour of support for her efforts and this major girl power research, Villarreal remarks, “women are volunteering their samples happily report the arrival of their periods by giving samples to our lab announcing “de-identified sample number XXX arrived today!" It's a far cry from the stereotype of when “it's that time of the month."
How are these collections being done? “Although it might sound odd to collect menstrual blood, plastic cups have been developed to use in the collection process. This is similar to menstrual products, called menstrual cups, that have been on the market for many years," Dr. Salber says.
Equally shocking and innovative, this might be something that becomes more common practice in the future. And according to Dr. Salber, women may be able to not only use the menstrual blood for early detection, but be able to store the stem cells from it to help treat future diseases. “Companies are working to commercialize the use of menstrual blood stem cells. One company, for example, is offering a patented service to store menstrual blood stem cells for use in tissue generation if the need arises."