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 For example, between 1997 and 2000, 8 out of the 10 drugs that were taken off of the US market were withdrawn because they had effects specifically on women that had not been investigated in previous studies.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?

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?

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%).

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

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!