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Diversity Correlates With Success: Gender and Synthetic Biology

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I’ve been at iGEM (an undergraduate engineering competition in synthetic biology) this weekend learning about all the amazing bioengineering projects that students from around the world have been building. I’ll be writing more about many of these projects soon, but I wanted to highlight the work of one team on issues of gender diversity in synthetic biology. The Paris Bettencourt team performed a detailed study of gender diversity in synthetic biology and in iGEM, and I asked team member Aude Bernheim some question about the project:

Your team has done a really tremendous job addressing gender inequality at multiple levels through your Human Practices project. Can you first tell us a little bit about your iGEM project in general and what human practices is?

Our iGEM project dealt with tuberculosis. We developed four new biotechnologies to fight this disease. We engineered an E. coli that kills the tuberculosis bacteria inside infected cells, we designed a new diagnostic system to specifically detect antibiotics resistance, we created a phage that makes antibiotic resistant population sensitive again and we performed a high-throughput drug screen using synthetic E. coli and found 8 new drug candidates for TB.

In iGEM, human practices are about thinking outside the technical aspects of a scientific question and including social, economic, and communication aspects to solve scientific issues. When we talked to experts to learn more about those aspects in TB, we discovered that there was a gender bias in TB epidemiology, that has biological and social causes. This lead us to reflect on gender bias in our own community.

Why are issues related to gender equality important both for the practice of laboratory research as well as the outcomes of new medical technologies being deployed?

Gender balance affects the way we do science and the way we develop new technologies. Gender bias in laboratories leads to unexpected effects. For example, between 1997 and 2000, 8 out of the 10 drugs that were taken off of the US market were withdrawn because they had effects specifically on women that had not been investigated in previous studies.

Your study of gender diversity in Synthetic Biology labs, publications, and conferences provided a lot of insight into the structure and organization of the field. Were you surprised at all by the numbers that you found? How do your numbers compare to similar measures in other fields of science and technology?

Study of Gender Diversity in Synthetic Biology by Paris Bettencourt iGEM 2013

We followed a data driven approach because we did not want to be influenced by our owns biases. We knew when we started working on this subject, that many fields in science suffer from gender bias, but because synthetic biology is a new field we expected that historical biases would not apply and that we would not observe an important gender bias. However what we found out is that the bias we observe in synthetic biology is very representative of the bias in other fields of science. For example we see that 33% of researchers in synthetic biology researchers are women, and in Europe, 30% of researchers are women. In synthetic biology, 82% of synthetic biology heads of labs are men while in Europe 85% of top positions in research are occupied by men.

One really interesting and surprising result from your analysis of conference speakers was how significantly the percentage of female speakers increased between SB 3.0 in 2007 and SB 5.0 in 2011. How does such a big change happen? What effect do you think this has on the community overall?

Study of Gender Diversity of Synthetic Biology Conference Speakers by Paris Bettencourt IGEM 2013

This was a result we did not expect at all! When we discovered this, we quickly thought that a proactive gender policy had been put in place. So we tried to understand better what happened and we learned that the first two SB conferences were organized in an quite informal manner, but then the BioBrick foundation took charge of it. They told us that they were very aware of gender bias issues, and that they do as much as they can to move into the right direction. We think that having women speakers at conference is very important. Speakers act as role models and this proactive gender policy also counterbalances self censorship from women as well as existing obstacles for them to move up the professional ladder.

What about gender diversity on iGEM teams? What did you find when you looked at the gender diversity of winning teams?

Even with students, we discovered a gender bias existed! In iGEM, participating teams have a sex ratio of 37% women. And this is an issue because we do better science when we work together. And this was seen in iGEM, as prize winner teams in iGEM are more gender balanced than participating teams (45% vs 37%).

Study of Gender Diversity in iGEM teams by Paris Bettencourt iGEM 2013

How do you see your results influencing iGEM and the synthetic biology community?

Study of Gender Diversity in Prize-Winning iGEM Teams by Paris Bettencourt iGEM 2013

We had the chance of presenting our results in the regional jamboree of iGEM in front of all the European teams. That represents more than 700 hundred people. It generated a lot of debate and everyone started talking about it! For us it was a huge success, because our goal with this study is to make as many people as possible aware of this issue. We think that when people are aware of those biases and stereotypes, they will be less likely to convey and tolerate them. The iGEM foundation which organizes iGEM also showed strong enthusiasm. They are very motivated to develop an active gender policy to get rid of those biases. With those first reactions and the one we hope to generate in the world jamboree, we do hope to spark the interest of many young scientists that will then carry on this message home.

Why is gender diversity important, and how do you think these numbers can improve in future generations?

We think that sparking the interest of the whole community will create a dynamic that will translate into concrete actions. If we can all work to follow some guidelines to improve diversity, we really do hope that every new scientist will be aware of this subject and act accordingly to it. As gender balance is a drive for performance, we hope that this will allow to do better science but also a science that works and is useful for everyone and not just a minority. Moreover, mixity is always the first step towards diversity, so we hope that by improving gender equality, science will also become more diverse in a more general way!

Christina Agapakis About the Author: Christina Agapakis is a biological designer who blogs about biology, engineering, engineering biology, and biologically inspired engineering. Follow on Twitter @thisischristina.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. sault 12:55 pm 11/4/2013

    “The iGEM foundation which organizes iGEM also showed strong enthusiasm. They are very motivated to develop an active gender policy to get rid of those biases.”

    Hopefully, this active gender policy doesn’t amount to just quotas and very bad PR campaigns like the “Science, It’s a Girl Thing” debacle. Since women make up 60% of university students now and are subsequently getting the majority of degrees, things will balance out soon enough. iGEM will also have to make sure they still recruit the most-qualified male candidates while conducting this “active gender policy”.

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  2. 2. nseaver 3:00 pm 11/4/2013

    @sault: If only having 60% female students translated directly into having 60% of participants in projects like iGEM! While I admire your faith that “things will balance out soon enough,” we have a name for the consistent underrepresentation of women in prestige fields that has been a feature of all human organization in recorded memory: sexism.

    The data described here are compelling evidence for this underrepresentation (and they do not even get into the fact that when women do join these endeavors, they are often consigned to supposedly “non-scientific” roles like note-taking or human practices).

    The problem with sexism, of course, is that these things do *not* just balance themselves out. Quotas, although they instill fear into the hearts of men who imagine that their qualifications have nothing to do with a lifetime of experience that supports them at the expense of women, can be an excellent way to do that. For undergraduate competitions where the goal is first and foremost to educate a new generation of scientists and engineers (i.e. to *provide* qualifications rather than to reward them), an active gender policy is a fabulous idea.

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  3. 3. sault 5:44 pm 11/4/2013


    While sexism is a contributing factor, the fact that women themselves do not choose to study scientific and technical fields in proportion to their numbers also limits the number of potential candidates.

    So, the question remains, how do you find the baseline level of women’s interest in technical development activities like iGEM? On average, what percentage of women would like to participate in events like this or further educational development but just didn’t know about it or ran into some sort of barrier, either self-imposed or brought about by sexism? We need to identify every factor affecting recruiting numbers rather than just making blanket assertions of sexism. In this way, awareness and outreach programs can be targeted accurately and actions to limit sexism can be made only as far-reaching as they need to be.

    Also, keep in mind that quotas esentially “rob Peter to pay Paul” unless more opportunities are opened up for everybody in the process. How does synthetic biology, or any field for that matter, benefit when highly-qualified candidates are turned away to meet artificial recruiting numbers? The wining teams in this particular competition were more diverse, so maybe the entrance criteria needs to be reevaluated before hard quotas are implemented.

    The claim that male college students have “a lifetime of experience that supports them at the expense of women” when 60% of college students are women to begin with also requires some serious evidence to back it up. Boys are also dropping out of school in much higher numbers than girls and the trend is getting worse, so I’m not sure what sort of “support” you are referring to.

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  4. 4. nseaver 6:50 pm 11/4/2013


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  5. 5. sault 6:55 pm 11/4/2013


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  6. 6. nseaver 7:23 pm 11/4/2013

    If you think the problem is that people have varying levels of “baseline interest” and then they encounter barriers to fulfilling their intrinsic capabilities, then you are mistaken. People *acquire* interest and qualifications in social settings, like iGEM. Those settings are shaped by sexism, so to answer your question “how do you find the baseline level of women’s interest in technical development activities like iGEM?”: You can’t, because there is no such thing as a baseline level of women’s interest. Or rather, there is no baseline level that you can find independent of institutionalized sexism. So, if your goal is to not be sexist, then it is not good enough to try to match existing interest levels as though those are somehow independent of sexism.

    If you think this is a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul, then keep in mind that Peter has been robbing Paul blind for centuries. I am 100% behind a reparations program for Paul. I cannot bring myself to care that boys are dropping out of school at a higher rate than girls, as though we are at risk of some ascendant matriarchal terror. The source I could find that verifies your 60% number suggests that “It should also be noted that the national male-female ratio for 18-24 year olds is actually 51-49, meaning there are more (traditionally) college-aged males than females” ( So, your extra women are coming from outside the traditional age range for attending college, which also means that they are coming from age groups in which women were underrepresented in college. That is to say, they are not robbing your Peters but rather retrieving what previous Peters robbed from them. The idea that we are on the verge of accidentally favoring women and having institutionalized misandry is laughable and really only worth the :’( I gave it before.

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  7. 7. nseaver 7:51 pm 11/4/2013

    Correction to the last, based on a comment at the piece I linked: It looks like that 51-49 figure was poorly worded and actually refers to the sex ratio in the US more generally, not in college, where there are actually more women of “traditional college age” than men. That said, I still cannot find a reason to care that there are fewer men in college than women, as though men have suddenly become an at-risk population.

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  8. 8. sault 9:28 pm 11/4/2013

    The fact that you don’t care about men shows how achieving equality is not part of your agenda. Feminists need to stop claiming that they are interested in equality if they subscribe to your beliefs.

    So how is it fair to expect men today to pay for “the sins of their fathers” that happened decades to centuries ago? The men currently getting short-changed by an education system that is failing them or denied opportunity due to sexist (and that IS the proper term) quotas have done nothing wrong. If they should pay just because they are men, then this smacks of the sexism that you claim to be opposed to.

    And again, it is amazing that you still maintain that our society has a bunch of terrible sexism purely directed at women when:

    1. Men are still required to register for the draft and can be forced into the military against their will or face jail time.

    2. The “women and children first” rule is still in effect, and any man that saves himself from a dangerous situation before making sure he isn’t in violation of it will face extreme social stigma.

    3. Men serve nearly twice as long in prison than women for the exact same crimes.

    4. Family and divorce law is tilted extremely in women’s favor, especially with child custody, property division and alimony / child support / etc.

    5. Allegations of rape and other sexual crimes against men cause the accused to be “guilty until proven innocent” and can wreck a man’s personal / professional life regardless of the legal outcome.

    6. Breast cancer research gets more than twice the funding of prostate cancer research even though they both kill similar numbers of people.

    I could name lots of other things that make any claims of some overbearing “patriarchy” look downright silly, but you get the point. Look, there is just an “Archy” of people at the top that tries to keep EVERYBODY down, and they must love it when the serfs fight each other over who is getting oppressed more than the other.

    And if you want to make this about past injustices, let me remind you that military conscription is nothing new, and men have been forced to kill and die in wars by the millions since civilization began. If you were a serf or a peasant, your lot in life was pretty bad no matter WHAT set of chromosomes you had, but I’d say DYING is about the worst thing that can happen to somebody, don’t you agree? Should men today be able to seek “reparations” for all those bloody wars their ancestors fought and died in? The “Archy” is not about to open up their wallets on this issue, for sure!

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  9. 9. nseaver 10:22 pm 11/4/2013

    …And we’ve cracked open the MRA meme vault. I think that’s about enough. Good luck in your fight against the nascent matriarchy. I can only hope that smart young women like Aude have more luck thanks to their careful research on actually existing problems.

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  10. 10. sault 11:26 pm 11/4/2013

    And we’ve revealed the “3rd wave” feminist inability to have any sort of rational discussion when the tenets of their faith are challenged. Good luck tilting at all those patriarchal windmills and retreating from any real debate.

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