Written by Sebila Kratovac
It is easy to feel hopeless and disillusioned when struggling to make even the smallest change in our daily lives, let alone a change larger in scope. Through my younger sister Anesa Kratovac, I have realized that it takes a unique and fearless person to pursue change on a global scale. With her keen ability to connect with people and make them feel comfortable, Anesa is the ideal person to take on such an ambitious pursuit. Her open, generous, and adventurous nature has helped her channel her creativity and intelligence into humanitarianism and entrepreneurship. I set down with Anesa at a coffee shop in the West Village where we talked about education, creativity, humanitarianism, women’s rights, and things that inspire her.
When you were younger, what did you think your life was going to be?
Unlike many other people that had a specific career in mind, I always felt that I would be “a person of the world.” I liked that my future was open-ended, so that I could focus on the journey and the inspiration that came from it rather than resigning myself to a specific path. So I explored different subjects that fascinated me.
Which subjects were your favorites in school?
I liked pretty much everything. I liked Art, English, History, Biology and even certain Math classes…because they all explained something about the world. I liked to see the big picture and how everything fits together and impacts the world. It was almost like investigating different sides of life and what’s possible. Ultimately it all led to “why are we here? What’s the purpose?,” the big questions.
With such broad interests, how did you choose a concentration in college?
I went to a liberal arts school, Bard College, because I never liked to be confined to a rigid curriculum. I was able to explore a variety of different fields…to actually design my own education. Because I felt connected to other cultures and saw the world as my home, I first gravitated towards anthropology. But, ultimately, I felt that the field was too abstract for me, and I eventually decided on political science. Political science offered me a place where I could take anthropology, human rights, justice, social science, and politics, and apply this knowledge to policy-making. Whereas anthropology is more about observing, understanding, capturing, and describing the essence of people and cultures, politics could actually actively impact communities through advocacy and policy.
How did you gain practical experience in political science?
I did a semester at BGIA (Bard Globalization and International Affairs Program), a Bard-sponsored program in NYC. I really craved being in a more densely populated setting and was ready to be away from the campus bubble for a while. It was a diverse community of students and it was a big chance for me to experience the practical side of my education. We had internships during the day and classes at night. I worked in the development department of EastWest Institute, a think-tank that seeks to bridge cooperation in security, justice, and policy between the West and post-communist Europe.
You also went abroad in college…
I did an exchange program at Central European University in Budapest, Hungary. I took classes with Master’s students and I remember feeling that the style of teaching was similar to Bard’s. A lot of the European Master’s students didn’t have experience with liberal arts education. To them, this educational style was more challenging and nerve-racking. In their native countries, the educational system consisted of memorizing facts and showing up for tests. I talked to a lot of my friends in this program, and they said that they felt out of place in a setting that demeaned innovative and critical thinking. They often felt like subordinates who had to follow outdated rules and concepts instead of engaging in ideas that could lead to change and innovation. That’s an example of how an education system can really limit progress in a country.
Most educational institutions don’t have a liberal arts curriculum. It’s more rare to find schools that offer them.
If you look at the U.S., most schools are public schools and have huge lecture halls. You have a few liberal arts schools scattered here and there around the country. They are expensive and hard to get into. When you examine the American demographic, so many more people follow technical careers and learn all about one specific subject-matter and little about anything else. This kind of an education translates into how people think and behave outside of the academic setting. I feel that liberal arts education prepares you the best for the world and it allows you to enter numerous fields and to further specialize later on.
In the U.S. and elsewhere, people think that they need to specialize in a particular area to progress.
That’s true, but you cannot change your desire to be a well-rounded, well-informed human being. You cannot change your passions and the way your brain is wired. To have an open discourse and a healthy, functioning society, you need people with different ways of thinking to perform variety of services to humanity. What would world be like without dancers, documentary makers, or physicists? I feel that because in America all talent is relatively appreciated and utilized, it has become a nation of opportunity and progress. For example, Temple Grandin, an autistic woman who helped design humane cattle facilities, has said that if there weren’t people with autistic tendencies, a lot of innovations wouldn’t have come about. People like Einstein, who is suspected to have been on the autism spectrum, came up with brilliant ideas. Technology companies are now hiring creative people—it’s a new trend to hire liberal arts people for new businesses. We, however, need more scientists who are artists, artists who are computer programmers etc…this utilization of both the left and the right brain will change the world, I believe.
Artists have always been stigmatized…
I think they are stigmatized because of the notion that they’re not stable and are unable to support themselves. The stigma comes from the society that sees capital output and profit as the main measure of success. Money and power is what dictates policy in a lot of fields. Although artists aren’t concerned about the financial aspects of the world, they make the world a better place. They truly embrace being on the outer edges of social norms and can be influential enough to innovate those norms. Artists ultimately provide us with culture, entertainment, and the inspiration to question the status-quo.
If people really knew how much artist, musicians, and entertainers contribute to the society…
One friend from my Master’s program once told me about a study showing that the main thing that makes people happy in life is not necessarily marriage, friendships, a job, or opportunities—it’s access to cultural activities. I think cultural activities push limits of imagination and make us feel more alive, a part of something bigger. This reminds me of the story of my grandmother. My mom recently visited her in Bosnia and took her out to see a theater play. My grandma is usually home alone and is not active outdoors because of her health. The day after the performance, my mom reported that my grandmother was a different person…she was full of life, refreshed, and energized. I think the performance sparked her imagination and she found such happiness in the experience. I think creativity is more in tune with our basic primal needs and desires. So when we are being artistic, when we dance, when we channel a more creative energy, we come closer to the ultimate expression of our being.
Collective expression of joy is an ultimate cure for depression. It is argued that when the world became more conservative and religious, and all of these ecstatic rituals were banned, people started becoming more depressed.
And you know why? A lot of dancing and creative aspects of life were suppressed at different times because the ruling class was afraid that the general population could unite through these rituals and organize a revolt. This happened in Communism and Puritanism. Today, I think the suppression is more subtle and it comes in the form of indoctrination of children to think and feel a certain way, and pushing consumerism on adults in order to steer people away from asking the big questions and thinking critically about the world around them. We would have progressed so much more as a society without advertising, television, and corporate interests. As long as the achievement of status is culturally celebrated and rewarded, people will have very little incentive to think outside the box and challenge mainstream ideas.
Once you graduated from college, how did you choose your first job?
I knew I wanted to help people and that there were many ways to do so. I thought maybe I wanted to go to law school and specialize in human rights or civil law. You can do so much with a law degree: you can be a consultant, you can work for a non-profit, you can do human rights work domestically or abroad. So, I took a job at Weitz and Luxenburg, a personal injury law firm in Manhattan, in their asbestos bankruptcy department. In 1982, asbestos was outlawed and many companies knew that it can cause cancer but didn’t disclose that information to their employees. Many people didn’t see any side effects until 20 to 30 years later. I was working on distributing the money left over by the bankrupt asbestos companies to people or relatives who won a settlement against these companies.
One of the most memorable experiences at the law firm involved a lady whose husband died of mesothelioma, a condition where lung cancer spreads to all of your bodily tissues, and there is no way to treat it. Because her husband’s medicals were outdated, she was getting settlements for lung cancer instead of mesothelioma, which is four times the amount she should have gotten to support herself in her retirement. People fall through the cracks because of bureaucracy. It took me ten minutes to correct her paperwork through correspondence. The lady was so thankful…she wanted my address and she sent me a present for the holidays—a porcelain angel and chocolates. She would call me from time to time just to talk. There were other older clients who called me just to talk and gave me advice about life. I once got a call from a man who worked with asbestos a long time ago and who would bring his soiled clothes home which his wife washed every day. His wife was the one to get cancer and she passed away from it. He missed her so much that he would make coffee every day, put her picture on the other side of the table, and talk to her. Many stories like this touched me.
Why did you decide not to study law?
Getting into law is a big commitment—not only financially, but you also sacrifice a lot of time and stability. You also have to love the profession—whether it is for the status, money, or the love of law—but you do have to really be certain it is your chosen path. I wasn’t. I had always been a rebel when it comes to conventional status quo, and although law is necessary to bring about justice in society, I always gravitated towards public policy and wanted to work with policy measures to make a difference. I also preferred to work in an environment where people care about the cause they support and are passionate about their work, and in most big, corporate law-firms, you find that money and status is the driving force.
I felt that year as a paralegal right out of college was too much of a harsh transition into the real world of corporate living. I felt like I needed my own unique journey, more adventure, more serendipity—more magic in my life. I decided to get the TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certificate to work with kids abroad. So during my time at Weitz and Luxenburg, I just made that my priority. I wanted to go to Europe and support myself and experience life there—to travel, work, and be intellectually stimulated—so teaching was perfect. Part of it is also because I left my country, Bosnia, when I was 7 and wanted to go back to revisit my childhood, to see how the place changed…to get to know my relatives. I wanted to have a soul–to–soul connection with the place of my birth and its people. It was a life-affirming experience.
After visiting Bosnia, I went to teach kids English in Prague, Czech Republic. The kids soaked up English right away…by the time I was leaving they could understand, reply, and sing in English. We would have circle time and play games, and I would teach them the alphabet, vocabulary, and English-language songs. We took many field-trips with them, and I really focused on encouraging their curiosity and creativity. I also wanted to polish up on my Czech…it got rusty over the years. After a while, I could fool people very easily…they thought I was a native Czech speaker because I had a perfect accent. Czech is my second language so I understood everything I heard. It was like hearing English…
This was your first time working with kids. How did you like the experience?
Working with kids was amazing…I still think of them as “my kids” and often remember them and think about what happened to them since I left. The kids were very open emotionally. They gave me a similar type of emotional satisfaction as did the old clients who told me their stories at my law firm job. The older people, because of their age, filtered less and were very open. And because they experienced disease and death of their loved ones, they were better able to convey emotion and to connect with me. The kids had not gone through much, so they filtered nothing and were so present in the moment. As a young adult, you are nostalgic for that time and feel this urgency to connect to that curiosity and freedom before life takes a hold and you are swung in multiple other directions.
The kids were also puzzled with everything. I loved that they did not hide their expression of love for each other and the teachers. Kids before puberty are gutsier. When puberty hits, children become more fearful, more conditioned, and care more about what others think. They are so vulnerable to pressure, because they lack the life-experience and confidence to be themselves.
Although I had so much fun with the kids and felt I made a difference in their worlds, I knew that I was going to stay at the job for only one year because I wanted to go to graduate school. I wanted to study human rights, politics, and international development. What was speaking to me the most was working with women’s issues—women’s health, education, and improvement in their economic standing.
Tell me more about your fascination with women’s rights.
It all starts with women’s well-being. Many social ills are due to suppression of women because they lack education and don’t have the economic and social power. They solely become vessels for childbearing and are unable to ask questions about their bodies and their futures. Knowledge is power and with an educated population of women, you can transform a country in every way including increasing its GDP. Women are much more tied to their communities than men because a lot of men and boys leave to look for jobs in the cities. The women are communicative and create connections within their community, so if you empower a woman with knowledge and economic options, you’ll empower her children, her family, her friends, her neighbors…her country.
What was your first experience with humanitarianism?
After teaching English in Prague, I joined a Master’s program in Political Science at the Central European University. A couple of friends and I created The Homelessness Relief Initiative. We worked with different shelters and homelessness organizations in Budapest to fundraise and collect food and clothing donations. When students moved after every school year, we took clothes that were left behind to shelters and we would hold them up so that people would be able to choose what they liked. It was great! A bonus to our efforts was a 2nd place Social Engagement prize given out every year at CEU. Our award was 250 Euros, so we got dry food and a lot of things that the homeless shelters needed.
How do you envision your role in the human rights field?
I really want to first break into research and then analyst work, and ultimately policy work. I eventually would like to manage a project on the field that’s related to education or building sustainable infrastructure that would help women and the powerless have more options in life. Depending on what the particular community needs —access to water, more schools, etc.—I would like to set up a project, get funding to actually make the necessary changes, and be a part of the policy initiatives. Ultimately, my dream would be to work at UN Women—an organization that has the influence, the funding, and truly dedicated humanitarians to make some real impact in the field.
What does analysis and policy work entail?
Well, what happens is that you research the background of a country, focusing on a specific factor, such as the status of women, for example. You see what needs to be done there, what the politics is like, what the history and cultural influences are like and how you can make sense of the current situation. Basically, you research anything that’s relevant to the change you want to make. Then you analyze data using statistics to see if you can find any significant relationships and you try to see how these relationships can give insights into what needs to be done.
Did you think about staying in Europe after graduate school?
I was considering staying in Europe but the job market was terrible in quite a few countries, and I did not have a good chance of getting a visa because a lot of European non-profits preferred to hire European Union citizens. I didn’t have any specialized, extremely marketable skills. Of course, I didn’t have much of a chance to get the job I wanted, so I went back to the only place that has a mix of opportunities, culture, and innovation: New York City. Here, I could constantly be stimulated and be in the midst of variety of opportunities and options. It was tough when I moved back to NYC, especially because of the economic crisis. The media doesn’t talk much about how people who went to graduate school fared in this economic environment, but it was as tough for us as the recent college grads.
What kind of methods did you use to find a job in NYC’s competitive environment?
The best way is to find contacts that are in the city you want to work in and ask them if they know people in your field. Try and move to the place where you want to be, attend lectures, go to recruiting firms and just put yourself out there. You can’t stick to just one method. It finally worked out for me: I worked for a couple of different non-profits and had very interesting experiences…all which expanded my skills in the non-profit sector. I worked for Barnard College assisting the Dean with pre-graduation activities. It was three months of whirl-wind planning and executing. I then worked for the New York Philharmonic in the development department, processing donor gifts and assisting with event-planning. The next experience was at the Legal Action Center. They are the only non-profit law firm in the country helping people with substance abuse, homelessness, and with improvement of work conditions. I assisted them with the organization of their annual fund-raising event, which was very successful. I am now working at the College Board in the Advocacy and Policy Center, and it’s a really great place to be. The center works with policy makers, counselors, administrators, and teachers, to train them in effective practices that could improve access to and success in college.
What are some other interests you are pursuing?
Currently, I have my own business, Asena Inc. Editing and Proofreading Services, which I initiated it in November 2012. It’s an idea I had for a long time. I was always attuned to writing, editing, and using proper grammar. Editing is just fun for me. It’s improving language and making it more impactful, clear, and concise. I also have a blog on HubPages, about lifestyle issues on variety of topics that hold my interests and that I think are worth-while for other people to read. It covers everything from natural skin care to nutrition and psychology.
I’m also interested in dance. I’ve delved into folk and Afro Brazilian dance and really want to get into flamenco nowadays. And of course, I always find time to travel. I have a life-long love affair with travel. I also love to read. I am very interested in ancient cultures and their wisdom about our origins and our relationship to the cosmos. I have read quite a bit about Buddhist teachings, esoteric views, and scientific/metaphysical views on our true abilities and purpose on Earth as humans. Usually, mindfulness, meditation and awareness bring us closer to our most balanced state. I visited the Pyramids at Teotihuacan, Mexico, recently and felt very connected to the sites and their purpose to connect to the higher source. I also want to explore the pyramids in Visoko, Bosnia, and volunteer to help with excavation. Thousands of years ago, people were asking the same questions, and we are now rediscovering their ideas and views to get a bit closer to some of the answers.
Art is also one of my passions… I excelled in painting in middle school and high school…one man even purchased my watercolor contour for $50 at a show—my first sale! Since then, I’ve painted privately from time to time, but had very little time to train to become better-skilled in the technical aspects of composition. But, with some life experience behind me, I feel more impassioned to paint about topics and characters that speak to me personally. You are a better artist if you have an interesting story to tell; you relate better to others and hopefully, you inspire them in some way. This is why Frida Kahlo, in touch with her physical and emotional pain, used art as an outlet to express these emotions. I find her art mesmerizing and inspirational. I would also like to do sculpture and pottery at some point. I did it in elementary school and I really liked it. Everyone told me that I should pursue it.
And, of course, I am an entrepreneurial spirit. One day I’d like to have my own business and want it to serve the humanity in some way…maybe a wellness center that I am thinking of opening with my sister Zerina. My sister is studying for her counseling psychology degree and she could be a counselor and I an English tutor/nutritionist/meditation guide to immigrant and poor families. I want to do a ton of projects—I want to be true to my heart and do whatever feels right.
What do you feel is crucial in making positive changes in the world?
Human rights are vitally important. Science and technology are incredibly important as well; you can contribute to the world in so many ways, and these fields will be the key to our advancement. But if you think about what’s relevant to 80% of the world, just basic needs—education, health, human rights—the truth is that most people don’t have them. You at least need to have everyone in a place where they can be healthy, educated, and have basic opportunities in life. We all deserve an opportunity to be treated as equals and to have control over our own bodies and lives. If we can achieve this, there is no telling the domino effect of progress in this world. In my lifetime, I would be excited to see the gap between rich and poor narrow and opportunities for the poorest of the poor increase, so that they can have access to basic health-care and education. At the end of the day, being a very, very small part of that work would bring me profound joy, purpose and a sense that my life did make a difference to others.
Written by Sebila Kratovac
Why do so many women choose to leave science? Can science become a place where women thrive without having to conform to current standards created when science was exclusively a boys’ club? These questions evoke experiences of many women, including my multi-talented sister Zerina Kratovac, who left science to pursue her other interests. Always a curious and creative soul and never shying away from important but potentially controversial topics, my sister discusses with me her experience in science, her journey into DJing and audio engineering, and her love for psychology. She is currently studying psychology in the Counseling Psychology Master’s Program at Alliant International University in Mexico City.
You were always a creative, artistic person. How did you first become interested in science?
I remember reading encyclopedias and scientific books when I was very young and being so captivated. I was fascinated by everything around me, especially occurrences I saw in nature. I always though science was fascinating but I felt it was often a challenge for me. I tended to enjoy science in more creative settings so typical science classes in high school and college didn’t motivate me. Fortunately, in high school, I had a wonderful chemistry teacher, Mr. Greg Swann. He allowed us to be creative by, for example, encouraging us to write our lab notes in an artistic, comic-like style. Even now, sometimes the only way I can feel motivated about my assignments is to make them somehow creative for myself. Mr. Swann inspired me and showed me that science and art aren’t exclusive—they can coexist. He was a rare teacher and mentor and more people like him are needed in schools.
I feel that the reason why I was able to pursue science is because I went to Sarah Lawrence College (SLC). At that time, very few students were involved in science at SLC since the school mostly attracted artsy, humanities-focused students. Anyone who was interested in science was given attention and support. I thought science research was fascinating but I was so afraid of the lab, all the scary equipment, the toxic chemicals…I was envisioning a Marie Curie-like fate but I felt that I had to conquer this fear. Continuing with science was not so intimidating after I got the opportunity to get hands-on lab experience through an internship on campus. My science professor and lab mentor, Dr. Drew Cressman, guided me and took time to explain everything, creating a supportive, collaborative and non-competitive environment in which I could learn about science. I also thought science would be a more secure career option in relation to my other interests.
How was your experience in the science field after college?
I was very eager to establish myself in science. But I was so blind to the realities of the field. Compared to SLC, which was a safe academic bubble, science in the real world was very different. I was lucky at my first research job because my boss allowed me to do experiments at my own pace without pressure. I optimized many experiments and was able to get a lot done but I did it in a way that was right for me.
You got a first-author paper during this time. It just goes to show that you can succeed in science if you work within the framework that works for you.
My next job was opposite of the first. I wasn’t given the freedom to do experiments at my own pace or according to my own judgment, and the research was fruitless. Lab workers were expected to do experiments exactly the way the boss wanted them to be done. In this environment, bosses can abuse and mistreat their employees, especially the foreign employees because of their dependence on the boss for visa support and the lack of protection from the research institutions they work for.
Luckily, my third lab job was awesome. The economy was still good back then. After my second job, I was very honest about my previous negative experiences during my job interviews. Most employers were horrified but, because of my honesty, I was hired on the spot for this job. Working with Dr. Theodora Hatziioannou, who was patient and understanding and allowed me to be creative, independent, and to work at my own pace, I was ultimately successful during that year.
You were very successful—you had three publications in one year, including a first-author paper.
Although this had been my favorite work experience, something was still missing…
After your success in science, why did you stop pursuing a career in science and start delving into music?
I’ve loved music all my life. I would compose and produce songs in my head as I was doing experiments in the lab and would have music on as often as I could while working. After three years working in science research, I was getting restless. I needed to do something else and knew it was time to move on. Soon, I started doing some DJing at a club on the Lower East Side. It was an amazing experience—I loved sharing my love for music and my music discoveries with others. I was creating on the spot, as I used to do while conducting experiments in the lab. It was like doing magic, creating an atmosphere out of seemingly nothing. I loved it. I however quickly realized how sexist and chauvinist the world of DJing truly is. To maintain independence, creativity, and to be able to stand their own ground, women in this field have to be extremely good. They have to have started early and have to be so undeniably spot-on that no one can touch them. Or they have to have a good mentor and support system. I was just a beginner. I was still growing and learning in terms of my music knowledge and skills and was doing it without any help or support. I also quickly realized that women in the field are forced to put up with injustices including sexual harassment to rise up in the DJing world, especially when they’re starting out or don’t have much experience. It’s almost like they have to accept the chauvinist behavior to even keep working, let alone to make it in this field. A lot of women grow up in and are so rampantly exposed to this chauvinist environment that they become complacent with it and believe that the only way to follow their dreams is to accept it.
How did you transition from being a music admirer to studying audio engineering?
After I left my Djing gig, I thought, well I couldn’t do the DJ thing professionally because I was just starting out and didn’t have enough of the technical skills required to be very good. I wanted to learn more about the equipment so I could be more confident when performing and making music. I was also thinking of doing production for up-and-coming bands. To pay the bills, I got another lab job and simultaneously enrolled in the Institute of Audio Research (IAR) where I took classes from 6 to 10 pm after work. But I encountered the same issues as in DJing. I was the only female student in my class and there were some professors who were extremely sexist. I spoke up openly against the sexism and I felt that it was my job while I was there to educate the professors and others about it. For instance, I was ridiculed in front of the class by a professor who said that my work was too bizarre and experimental. Another professor announced that I was learning too slowly. There was close-mindedness about how production should be done and how learning should happen—the school’s philosophy wasn’t progressive, it was conforming to the gender and industry standards.
However, I did have a couple of very inspiring, wonderful and supportive professors at IAR, especially Mario Salvati. He was patient and open-minded and accepted every type of thinking and was very encouraging. He even invited me to be a part of producing a local band as a part of an open house. He also introduced me to Bat for Lashes and a few other great artists that I love now. He was just so open (maybe because he had daughters) to the female in me and in others. He could relate to what I was going through and gave me an opportunity that’s usually not given to women. He was a great mentor and I will always be thankful to him for allowing me to have these experiences.
After graduating from IAR, I got an internship at Putumayo World Music. The internship was a great experience because I got to talk to people about their love for music and to hear stories about how music had improved their lives. Here, I saw again, just how music and psychology are intertwined.
What attracted you to psychology more than to science?
I thought, what can I do that combines all my interests? I noticed that in my free time, I would mostly read books somehow related to psychology. You can combine science, art, music, film, literature, and so many other fields with different theories in psychology. Science was limiting for me in terms of my interests and passions. I needed a more holistic experience. Science can be creative but you have to be lucky to be at the right place and at the right time to be able to exercise that creativity. There are so many things in science that depend on outside factors and forces that you can’t control. Psychology allows me to channel my creativity and femininity and, at the same time, to help others feel more comfortable with who they are and to accept themselves. Of course I will always like science because it is very interesting and I like discovering new things and concepts, but in psychology, I can also apply more of what I learn from life experience.
Once you started studying psychology in an academic setting, did your relationship to it change?
Actually, one of the major reasons why I chose the program in Mexico City is because it is much more progressive than most of the programs out there. In that sense, the ideas of my program are inherently trying to liberate the world from the one-sided thinking of how things should be done. Because of the liberatory philosophy of my program, I feel that I can voice my concerns freely. The problem is that in the academia anywhere, professors want to keep their jobs and that’s why they have to suppress their progressive ideas about the world, psychology, people—just about everything around them. To a certain extent, this has been my experience at all academic institutions.
Why do you think women are represented in psychology much more than in other STEM fields?
Well, historically, men started the psychology field but most therapists nowadays are women. I think that women are attracted to this profession because they can be themselves more so than in other professions. Psychology is about listening and being nurturing. That’s why women are more frequently found in helping professions like nursing and psychology. It also may be why I did not encounter obstacles as a woman in the psychology field…as a person, maybe, but not because I am a woman. I feel that the other STEM fields would benefit from that feminine energy but yet it is not as readily accepted in these fields.
In audio engineering and production, for example, you need people who are able to slave over a project and forget about everything else for a while. I knew producers who would, to stay productive and competitive, drink a few red bulls (and use other drugs) and pull all-nighters on a regular basis. I didn’t want to do this. I feel that most women would think about their other interests, passions, needs, and responsibilities. I think that women want to have a more full and all-encompassing life. They need more out of life to be happy but men could be happy with one successful thing that they are doing. It may be a generalization on my part, but I have experienced this way too often. In the life sciences, you spend most of your time in the lab. I wanted to be free. Getting good results and getting published is fulfilling when it happens, but on a daily basis, my life wasn’t fulfilling.
So how can the science field be changed to be more welcoming for women?
I think that the world has to change first. Then science will follow. It may also be possible for it to happen the other way around. But how are we going to change the world when there’s so much resistance? Most people who changed the world have experienced a lot of hardship, ridicule and even death because of their efforts. People like John Lennon, JFK, Nikola Tesla, and Martin Luther King…it comes down to, “should I risk my life?” Most people don’t want to suffer or die. And people who do take that risk become legends. They put their life behind their vision for the world and what they believe in. They want to express and expose the truth. You have to have that ability and have to realize that you can die doing it but do it anyway. I feel fearful and I don’t know if I can ever manage to be this way but I hope that with more life experience, I would be able to somehow change the world for the better.
Now that you’re in the psychology field, do you feel like this is the right place for you?
I don’t know where my life is going to lead me. Psychology is the right place for me right now. It’s a field that allows me to be myself the most. I have an artistic side but also an intellectual academic side. I like to analyze things, look at details, and be intense about a topic and really get into it but there’s also an artistic and free-spirited side to how I think and live my life. I want to work in psychology after I graduate and see how the field is in the real world. I don’t even know if I will be a therapist in the future but I know that I will use the skills I’ve learned from life, including science, music production, and psychology, in some capacity for the rest of my life to make at least a small positive impact on the world. I ultimately want to establish a business that somehow helps others relieve stress and live a more fulfilling and happy life. I have a few ideas right now…a healing center, a non-profit community organization, a coffee shop…
Written by Sebila Kratovac
In the midst of scrambling to find an affordable, light-filled apartment in NYC last September, I was struck by my broker’s comment that he rarely gets requests for bright apartments from his male clients. His observation led me to think about the connection between sunlight and our sense of well being, and why women’s moods seem to be more affected by lack of sunlight. Research has shown that women account for three quarters of all seasonal affective disorder sufferers in the fall and winter months, experiencing lethargy, weight gain, and even depression.
The reason why sun exposure translates into good mood could lie in our bodies’ need for Vitamin D. The sun’s UV rays enable the skin to convert cholesterol into Vitamin D, which is then circulated via the blood stream and absorbed by the kidneys, bones, intestines, and the brain. Sufficient absorption of Vitamin D is essential for good bone health, proper immune response, and optimal brain function. In the brain, Vitamin D enables calcium to regulate how neurons communicate with each other and how memories are formed. Vitamin D also plays a role in the production of neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine, which work as stimulants to keep us more alert and motivated, to decrease appetite and anxiety, and consequently, to improve our mood.
But why do women seem to require more sunlight to experience the same physical and emotional benefits as men? Women may have higher requirements for Vitamin D to keep their body healthy. The primary reason might, however, lie in the way in which women’s brains integrate information from the environment and their emotional coping. This could be partly because women experience greater fluctuations in circulating reproductive hormones, possibly making them more susceptible to changes in the environment. Another explanation may be cultural: many jobs and recreational activities more closely associated with male social and economic patterns may take men out of doors more frequently, increasing their exposure to sunshine. Interestingly, animal models of stress have shown that females are more resistant to acute and chronic stress. As a result, males have perhaps evolutionarily adapted to more efficiently eliminate stress by avoiding it at any cost.
Although scientists have found substantial gender differences in gene composition within organs such as the kidneys, efforts to identify gender differences in the brain have been much more elusive. Scientists cite many roadblocks to studying gender differences. The brain is an anatomically and cellularly heterogeneous organ and looking at intricate differences could be time consuming, expensive, and difficult to fund. Trying to extrapolate animal behavior data to humans could be very challenging and misleading. Some scientists are not willing to venture into gender research solely because they view it as “sexism;” Fortunately, some are willing to take the necessary risks. A study by Xu and colleagues, published in 2012 by the Cell magazine revealed that sex hormones regulate how behavior-specific genes are set up in the brain. The study suggests that female and male brains could be differently wired and could require a different mixture and level of nutrients for optimal mental health.
Further studies examining cellular and molecular brain differences and how they correspond to behavioral changes in mood, could give us insight into how to better treat mood disorders for both sexes. Scientists such as Tracy Bale and Jill Becker, have started a dialogue and have conducted important research on gender differences in the brain. Clinicians could also greatly contribute to the advancement of basic science gender research by testing how mood-altering drugs affect women and men differently.
The effects of sunlight have given us important clues to the differences in how the genders relate to the environment; however, sunlight may only be a small piece of the gender puzzle. After two months of searching, I finally found that perfect, sun-filled apartment. I am now patiently awaiting new research to justify my stubborn perseverance.
As a single w
oman in my late 20s, I often fantasize about having children someday. Inevitably, the now-typi cal scenari o comes to mind: A woman in excruciating pain is rushed to a hospital where she is wheele d into a sterile room, put into a white linen bed, hooked up to monitors, and given an IV perfusion. To speed up the onset of labor, she is given Pitocin, a synthetic oxytocin drug linked to more painful contractions, followed by an epidural to relieve the intense pain. Once the cervix is 10 cm dilated and the baby is on its way, the nurses scream for the woman to “Push!” If the baby is taking too long to be born, the obstetrician orders a C-section. Moder n childbirth evokes feelings of fear and a nxiety rather than safety, excitement, and joy that many women, including myself, would yearn to experience when that special day com es.
Although medicalization of childbirth in the early 20th century eventually improved some aspects of childbirth, including decreasing the mother and child mortality rate, childbirth is still viewed by the medical e
stablishment as a pathological process, a disease that needs vigorous treatment with numerous interventions. With the rise in C-sections (one in three women undergoes one in the U.S.) and an even steeper increase in epidural use (66% of women request it), I started wondering if wo men are really much better off today than in the days when childbirth was considered a natural process that women were strong enough to handle. My research has convinced me that today’s hospital birthing system is heavily pro-intervention, but that these medical procedures aren’t ideal or even necessary for many w omen. Awareness about and access to alternative forms of birthing should be available in hospitals, so that women can fina lly have choices in the birthing process. This is a matter of human rights.
We know about childbirth in th
e ancient world through many artistic depictions and scholarly writings. Old sculptures and paintings from all over th e world show the mother-to-be as a strong character with two women who are assisting her—presumably a femal e relative or a frie nd supporting her back and a midwife ready to receive the baby. Midwives had a special place in the society and were revered with awe and respect. In the increasingly religious world from 14th to 17th century, midwives became targets of deadly witch-hunts, seen as religious, sexual, and political threats to the ruling establish ment. Child and maternal mortality were serious da ngers due to infections, pelvis deformities caused by rickets, and other medical problems. Until the 19th century, childbirth was women’s work, and doctors were called in the most serious cases, but were u sually unable to help. Many of these doctors had no formal medical training and no opp ort unity to be properly trained in assisting live births. For centuries, women found clever ways to alleviate birth-associated pain using oil mas sages, herbs, calming rituals, and water baths. After the invention of anesthesia (ether and chloroform) and the forceps in the 19th cen tury, it became fashionable among the middle and upper classes to employ male obstetricians to assist in childbirth. By intervening with pain medication and tools, obstetricians gave an impres sion that they were actively engaged in he lping deliver the baby. Obstetrics departments spru ng up in medical schools and the virtually all-male student body, having little access to live births, was trained to assist in childbirth using human dummies.
With formalization of medical education and the medical system in the early 20th century, graduating obstetricians began practicing in hospitals with the belief that they could work more safely and profitably. Midwives were banned from hospitals becaus
e doctors believed that they were incompetent and ignorant, and ed the obstetricians to gain prestige, respect, and as a result, more business. Poor women and new immigrants still used midwifes whose services were familiar to them and were much more affordable. Because medical schools were male-domin ated and women were rarely admitted, midwives could not transition into becoming licensed medical practitioners and could not gain new skills to enhance their practice. There were two options for midwives: to either become licensed nurse-midwives or to practice illegally as lay midwives. Ironically, child a nd maternal mortality became much higher in hospitals because obstetricians, failing to wash their hands between patients and after performing auto psies, spread dangerous Streptococcus bacteria that caused childbed fev er in women and often resulted in death.
Obstetricians soon had another tool at their disposal to l
ure women into hospitals: an injectible concoction of the drugs morphine and scopolamine, which induced a condition known as “twilight sle ep.” Women under twilight sleep still felt childbirth pain but could not remember it. The drugs caused erratic behavior and nervous breakdowns in women, prompting the m edical staff to strap them to their beds and to even put them in straitjackets. Twilight sleep was a re latively common procedure in the U.S. until the 1960s, and it persisted into the 1980s in s ome rural areas. The obsession with sterility that started in the 1930s further increased the number of interventions. Fathers, friends, and relatives were strictly m the delivery room due to fear that they could contaminate the environ ment. Women gave birth vulnerable and alone, having little memory of their birthing experience. Once the c hild was born, it was quickly taken away, robbing the mother and child of the essential bonding time. Intimacy between mother and child after labor and d uring breast-feeding is crucial because both experience a surge in feel-good hormones such as oxytocin that help them bond emotionally. Although some women might have enjoyed not remembering their painful birthing experience, others were furious that the memory of and control over their own childbirth experience was compromised. In the 1940s and 50s, the mainstream view was that a woman should get married, have children, take care of the household, and support her husband with his career. Women were discouraged fr om applying to medical school and were flatly denied entrance solely on these premises. By the 1960s, only 9% of do ctors were female while 97% of births occurred in male obstetrician–dominated hospitals. But things were about to change in a big way. In 1963, Betty Fr iedan published a revolutionary book, The Feminine Mystique, initiating the second-wave feminism m ovement. The book criticiz ed the 40s and 50s idealized image of a woman homemaker as a happy and fulfilled human being. Along with the civil rights movement, feminism of the 1960s brought focus back to women’s rights, and women started protesting against their negative healthcare and childbirth experiences. They wanted to be informed about their bodies and their health without relying on doctors who were ubiquitously practicing medicine within a patriarchical framework.
In the late 1960s, women started organizing workshops and seminars about contraception, natural childbirth, abortion, and many other health issues, encouraging women to be informed and take control over their own b
ns were writ ten by women with expertise in topics such as sexual health, gender identity, mental health, menopause, and birth control. The same year, Ina May Gaskin opened The Farm, a first natural birthing center located on a commune in Tennessee. Soon after, she wrote a book called Spiritual Midwifery, in which she described birth as a natural and spiritual process, inspiring more women to establish natural birthing centers. Ano ther influential book, W itches, Midwives, and Nurses, written by feminist activists Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, exposed the marginalization of women healers and midwives by the medical establishment—a trend that caused a decline in the quality of women’s childbirth experience.
Informed and empowered by the new women’s health movement, many women chose natural births. The feminist movement also moti
vated many women to pursue careers in medicine, and, by the late 1970s, 25% of medical students were women. The natural birth movement was substantially w eakened by the late 1980s, oddly coinciding with the onset of the improvement in gender equality in the work sector and in the society at large. Women started having children later in life and wanted to better balance their careers and family life. They also began having more children per birth due to more sophisticated in vitro fertilization techniques. Scheduling C-sections to fit busy women’s lifestyle and using epidurals became m uch more common. By the 2000s, the increasing cost of malpractice insurance forced many birthing centers to close down or to merge with hospitals.
Today, 31% of doctors are female and women dominat
e the obstetrics field, yet opposition to natural childbirth is stronger and more organized than ever. Five decades after the second wave of feminism inspired wome n to regain control over their b odies, most women still have little choice over how their child is born. Reading through many articles and blogs, I discovered that women are dissatisfied and disillusioned with their hospital birth experiences. They want choices but have to resign their control to hospital protocol. Although medical interventions may be necessary for high-risk births, in low-risk situations, they could actually cause more harm than good. Many women would like to have a home birth but cannot afford it, since most insurance plans do not cover the service. Some women feel safer at a birthing center inside a hospital in case an emergency arises. Opting for this kind of a birth—seemingly the best of both worlds—is not possible at all hospitals. Nurse-midwives may disagree with obstetricians as to when it is necessary to intervene, but obstetricians nevertheless make the final decision in such circumstances. So are women better off giving birth today than in the past? The United States has the second highest child mortality rate in the developed world. Unnecessary interventions could be harmful to both the mother and the baby. R ecovery from a C-section is often long and post-surgery infections are common. From obstetricians’ point of view, interventions make their jobs much faster and easier. The interventions also make the mother-to-be calmer and easier to work with. C-sections are about 20 minutes long and are quite profitable. While natural childbirth is different for every woman, it can be a very powerful and pleasurable experience, with a much shorter healing time. If hospital births were not covered by insurance, natural bi rths would be comparat ively much less expensive.
The United States has many successful childbirth models to draw inspiration from. In the Netherlands, for example, about 30% of births occur at home, and additional 10% of women give birth at birthing centers. The other 60% give birth at hospitals, because they are either pre-screened for complications or trained midwive
s transfer them to a hospital at any sign of danger. Another roadblock to birthing reforms in the U.S. is that in some states midwives have to be licensed in nursing to practice legally and to be able to work in hospitals. There is still stigma attached to lay midwives, leading to a steady decrease in their demand, a situatio n that further contributes to the lack of birthing options for pregnant women. One remedy for such setbacks f or natural birth options is to include out-of-hospital births in medical insurance plans.
If there are so many issues with the current hospital birth system, why is there so little opposition among obstetricians? For one, obstetricians might be under a lot of pressure to medically intervene, because they fear expensive malpractice lawsuits. Others, especially female obstetricians, may be afraid of being singled out, ridiculed, harassed, or even fired for their alternative beliefs. Perhaps some obstetricians, who are critical of the hospital birthing system, eventually decide to leave the profession and become midwives or reform activists. But there is another side of this story. Why aren’t women being more vocal about their qualms with the system? Why hasn’t there been an explosion
of women activists petitioning for a change? The current state of femini sm might give us some clues. Feminists nowadays are more focused on closing the wage gap in the work place and having long and successful careers. They are having children later in life—if at all—and usually don’t want large families. Since older mothers tend to have higher-risk births, many of these women opt out of a natural birth. The profile of a modern woman and a mother is different than it used to be, and current medical establishment caters better to this kind of a woman. Still, the hospital birth system has plenty of room for improvement. On the surface, the modern system presents itself as the best option (and is often the only option) for women who, in obstetricians’ minds, ‘really care about what happens to their unborn baby.’ Even if a woman is familiar with and can afford alternative birthing options, this rhetoric can shame her into choosing a hospital birth. But, most disturbingly, once a w oman chooses a hospital birth, the control over what happens to her and her baby is solely in the hands of the obstetrician.
In 2008, Ricky Lake, a well-known talk show host, released an informative documentary called The Business of Being Born, which was met with both praise and criticism from the medical community and the publi
c. Her film, now offered for free through Netflix, has been one of the best informational tools to dat e about natural birth. More recently, women have started sharing their diverse birthing experiences through online articles, blogs, and social media. There are even un censored videos of women giving birth on YouTube. One impressive website was set up by an organiza tion called Birthing from Within , which provides information about natural births. Unfortunately, these online outlets don’t have a wide-reaching audience of a celebrity such as Ricky Lake, and so the information does not reach the women that need it the most. Perhaps another women’s health movement is in store?