“Whilst there are many examples of people in society who have been tremendously successful but also closeted, I knew that was not going to be my story”
“Whilst there are many examples of people in society who have been tremendously successful but also closeted, I knew that was not going to be my story.” MJ Edwards, Senior Associate General Counsel at Gilead Sciences Inc., is entirely unapologetic about being authentically herself.
“I see it as part of a mental health journey. I’ve had my own struggles, I’ve known people who have had chronic mental ill-health, and I see it intertwined. If you can’t bring your whole self to work, or to family, or friends, it just compounds your journey through life in every aspect.”
MJ joined Gilead as a Patent Attorney, and over the past 11 years has progressed to being head of the Patent Prosecution Team. “It’s full circle for my career,” MJ says, recounting how she began her career by working for another pharmaceutical company as a chemist. “I felt so motivated by the task of exploring how we could bring medicines to people in need. There’s a whole regulatory and scientific journey behind that, and I realized that I needed to move my career in that direction. So, I went to law school, and realized that this was an area I belonged in.”
She says it’s the best of both worlds: the job requires MJ to be on top of all of the science and innovation she enjoyed as a chemist, but with the regulatory authority to see different drugs through the process from labs to patients.
Law school however also brought different perspectives into focus for MJ. “I was at law school in Massachusetts, when the first legal case seeking same-sex marriage in the U.S. was brought. As an LGBTQIA student in law, it was part of the atmosphere for us that we discussed in our constitutional law classes, and it was all around us.” Importantly, it brought into focus the extent to which suddenly true equality, rather than ‘separate by legal’ arrangements, lay in the hands of the courts and legal systems.
“I hadn’t appreciated how many rights and benefits are associated with marriage and having your union recognized. Like it or not, civil society is arranged around marriage, and it dawned on me that a lot of the rights and benefits that people perhaps take for granted are rooted in marriage or the recognition of marriage.”
As MJ began to build her family with her partner around the same time, the importance was increasingly paramount. “We were in the process of creating a family, and it was taking a little longer than we expected. So, we decided, with same-sex marriage being legalized in Massachusetts, it was probably right to get married before we began our family in order to put my wife – as the non-biological parent – on an equal track as a parent.”
MJ and her wife married in a small ceremony with friends and family, in an event that MJ says was both fulfilling and wonderful: to have your love, and your union, recognized and celebrated by those people closest to you. The couple set about building their family, embarking on a co-parent adoption so that MJ’s partner’s rights to their children weren’t contingent on the marriage at all. She laughs and makes a point to encourage other couples building families to do the same as best practice.
As her family was growing, so was LGBTQIA representation and equality. “I made a purposeful decision in my first job in the 90s to be myself in the workplace and present as who I am.” She was clear that her partner, who is now her wife, was her primary relationship. “If there was a plus one, it was going to be her.”
For MJ it was about privilege – as an educated, white, cisgender woman, she wanted to use the privilege she had to make sure that her workplace was a safe space for less privileged people to be authentic about who they were. “I wanted people to know that they didn’t have to be in the closet.”
A small group of LGBTQIA staff formed, and made it clear to senior leadership that they were at the company as it began to examine inclusion in the workplace. This continued when she arrived at Gilead, joining the Pride network at its inception, to ensure that these conversations about workplace equality were being had. MJ is now the co-chair of the North American Pride Alliance at Gilead, and just wants to make sure that if nothing else, LGBTQIA staff have spaces where they can be heard and understood at work.
“We’re in such a different place now compared to the 90s. Then it was a revolutionary conversation just to say that you were present, now I see 500 Gilead Employees walking in the San Francisco Pride parade. LGBTQIA people still have a long way to go in terms of equality, but we’re making progress.” As a Pride Alliance, MJ and Gilead are working on improving the recognition and acceptance for trans and non-binary colleagues, ensuring that they can pursue their careers without interference and with access to the resources they need to do so.
It loops back to the mental health journey that MJ described to me early on in our interview, ensuring that staff are able to work and be themselves without – or remedying – obstacles to that. “It’s a pyramid. A really strong foundation that allows you to take chances and be brave, so that you can reach new heights.”
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