Born to Run the World?

Biopolitical Times
Sketch of 2 people's shoes in white at the top of the artwork. Displayed at the bottom is an illustration of two women banging on an invisible barrier.

Forget about glass ceilings, sexism in employment, gender inequities, and all those other structural and societal policies and practices that put obstacles in the way of women (as well as racialized groups) who want to get ahead. Maybe it's just that they are more likely to lack the unimaginatively-named rs4950 genotype, a DNA pattern that seems to be "passed down from parents" – just like the privileges and power that groom the offspring of some for "leadership."

Perhaps these new findings will be of interest to those who like to start orienting toddlers for their future careers even before they've found them places in upscale daycare programs. The news may also please those already excited by the same authors' findings that "happiness is significantly influenced by genetic variation"

In this case, the source was said to be a serotonin transporter gene (SLC6A4) -- even though the authors hedged their enthusiasm noting that a "combination of economics and genetics "was of "rising salience."

In any event, I'm interested here in the newer hyped data about rs4950, apparently a "marker residing on a neuronal acetylcholine receptor gene (CHRNB3)" of which two copies, one from each parent, seem to be the lucky dose for getting ahead. And hey: acetylcholine seems to have something to do with being impulsive or patient – though the authors at least don't yet try to draw causal links for any of this.

Most people will read of the "leadership gene" through press releases and media reports and not see all the caveats, cautionary details, and various uncertainties the authors acknowledge in the published paper, and this is a pity. Because what they will read or hear is a clear "Yes" in response to the straightforward question: "Is there a gene for leadership?" And so easily erased will be the equally strong, if not stronger, "yes" that is established as the answer to questions about whether gender plays a role in leadership. (And unfortunately, too, the authors seem to recognize this but nevertheless fail to correctly control for sex in their major analyses.)

All this leads to one of my major concerns with this (and similar) work. Given the very well-documented and persisting gendered "leadership" gaps in business as in academia, why should we care about genetic polymorphisms that explain little if anything of why some succeed and others are prevented from doing so? Conversely, why do we not care appropriately about all the structural and societal determinants that make it impossible for so many who want to climb up the corporate ladder?

Many social conditions can be conveniently ignored if corporations can screen job applicants and pick out the genetically predisposed who can be given a "go straight to the boardroom" card when handed their MBA degree. With this latest "quick fix," who will invest in social change?

Of course, it'll be important to figure out how to avoid potential genetic discrimination, and perhaps give a token nod to understanding any environmental factors that may play a role in the standard refrain about "nature/nurture" interactions. But last time I checked, there are few funds for studying the "nurture" component and grossly insufficient policies to control discrimination based on the former – and so once again, genetic determinism may trump attention to social policy changes that break ingrained practices of gender and racial judgments in hiring practices.

Abby Lippman has spent decades following developments in applied genetic and reproductive technologies. Her main interests as a feminist researcher, writer and activist center on women's health and the politics of health. She is also Professor Emerita in the Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health at McGill University.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: