Numbers don’t lie, they say. And the numbers show that, as with other life sciences and biotech fields, the number of women in leadership positions in the synthetic biology space is disappointingly low. Last year, I reported that only 14% of the 236 synthetic biology companies I surveyed were led by women. I think most people would agree this is a serious issue — and that something needs to be done about it. But all too often, well-meaning, proactive efforts fizzle out before they have a chance to make a real impact. Why?
I think one of the biggest problems lies in what the numbers can’t show us. The numbers can’t help us understand what it is like, day in and day out, to be a woman in a space where your authority, expertise, and qualifications are constantly questioned. The numbers can’t help us feel the sadness, anger, and frustration facing many women in synthetic biology. The numbers don’t adequately describe what it is really like to be a woman in synthetic biology, so for those that aren’t a woman in synthetic biology, the problem is easily forgotten, or assumed to be taken care of by, who else, the women in synthetic biology.
To put some emotion and empathy behind the numbers — rather than distance and apathy — I recently reached out to several leading women in the synthetic biology space for their stories. In their own, non-sugar coated words, here’s what’s it’s really like to be a woman in synthetic biology. I hope you are as inspired by their stories as I am.
Janice Chen, Chess Player Turned Science Rockstar
Janice Chen, UC Berkeley alumna, is co-founder and Chief Research Officer of Mammoth Biosciences. She is taking the CRISPR expertise she gained in grad school and using it to help Mammoth develop the next generation of CRISPR-based diagnostics. Read our recent interview with Chen to learn about her views on the ethics of democratizing diagnostics.
“I was a shy kid growing up. One of my first hobbies was playing chess, and eventually a major part of my childhood involved traveling around the country to compete in chess tournaments. One of my favorite things about chess is that it’s a game of mental strength. It didn’t matter that I was the youngest girl in a field of older male competitors. At times there were sexist and uncomfortable situations, but at the end of the day I could win on the board–that alone was incredibly empowering.
When I grew older, I began to realize just how few females were at the top due to structural biases, and I feel fortunate to have met some incredible female role models who paved the way in the male-dominated world of chess. Looking back, chess helped set me up to handle situations in the male-dominated world of biotech startups that I live in today.
The ratio of males to females is reasonably balanced at the graduate student and post-doc level in life sciences today, but like with chess, structural biases have also contributed to significantly fewer female professors and executives compared to our male counterparts. Both by chance and by deliberate choice, I have been fortunate to have learned from rockstar female professors — in fact, all of my major research experiences from undergrad through graduate school have occurred in labs led by female PIs (that’s five total female PIs!). They have not only taught me how to be a rigorous scientist, but have also helped me navigate my career path and entrepreneurial journey.
Like many of my female colleagues, I have dealt with microaggressions to outright harassment during meetings, and sometimes it feels as though you have to be perfect just to be heard. However, it’s important to remember that there is power in technical knowledge, especially when you are the expert in a particular topic. As co-founder and Chief Research Officer of Mammoth Biosciences, one of my personal goals is to inspire younger female scientists to take on technical leadership roles and help others recognize the impact of diverse representation.”
Linda Guamán, the Doctor (not Doctorcita)
Linda Guamán received her BSc in Food Engineering from Universidad del Azuay and her MSc. in Microbiology from Universidad San Francisco de Quito. During her PhD studies at Universidad de Sao Paulo, she was a Visiting Research Scholar at Washington University in St. Louis, MO. Her current research at UTE in Quito, Ecuador, focuses on engineering S. boulardii to produce short chain fatty acids.
“To do science in Ecuador, and especially synthetic biology, has been really difficult for me. It’s common here that things like motherhood, family life, and even age are recurring themes during job interviews, and if, for example, you reveal during the interview that you plan to be a mother soon, you simply won’t receive the job offer.
Another difficulty I’ve faced is being taken seriously, whether it’s because I am woman or because I’m young. My salary is less than that of my male colleagues, and people always call me “niña,” (little girl) “reina,” (queen), or “Doctorcita” (little doctor) — while at the same time addressing my male colleagues as “Doctor.”
I recently won a really important Grant here in Ecuador, and even though I’m the project lead, they interviewed the principal investigator of my lab instead of me. This kind of thing is unfortunately quite common: women scientists in Ecuador are less visible than male doctors, male engineers, etc.
Even though I’ve experienced all of these hardships, which many times have made me feel like I’m not good enough, I decided to apply for the GlobalBiotech Revolution “100 Leaders of Tomorrow.” With the deadline closing in only five minutes, I sent in my application — and I was selected! This has given me extra strength to continue despite everything that may come against me. Like a common phrase in Ecuador says, “nadie es profeta en su tierra” (no prophet is accepted in their own land).
Another really special — and gratifying — accomplishment for me has been to guide the thesis project of a pre-graduate woman from the indigenous community of Salasaka. On the day of her defense, she wore the traditional dress hand-embroidered by her mother, and to thank her parents for all of their support, she addressed them in their native language, Quichua. To be able to see how proud her parents were, and how thankful they were to me for guiding her, filled my heart. I saw that I must push forward, and that it is possible to motivate other women to follow the scientific road.”
Joanne Kamens, The Director
Joanne Kamens is Executive Director at Addgene, founder of the Massachusetts chapter of the Association for Women in Science (AWIS),and Director of Mentoring for the Boston chapter of the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association (HBA). To read more about her experience as a woman in synthetic biology, and her efforts to correct gender disparity — including at Addgene — read this MassBio (Massachusetts Biotechnology Council) post.
“After 7 years working happily at a large company, I realized a week had gone by in which I had not seen one other woman in a meeting. This was a huge epiphany for me. I had never paid attention to gender issues. My parents, college mentors and grad advisor never treated me differently and I assumed all was well. This is a bittersweet memory. While the shock at realizing there was a problem was upsetting, it is what led me to get involved in founding Mass Association for Women in Science. MASS AWIS is now over 300 members and the largest chapter in the country. This is something I am very proud of as it serves and supports hundreds of women to be successful in science.
Some years ago I attended a large meeting of a scientific society. The conference for this society would be in Hawaii the following year. Every 30 minutes or so Hawaiian music would waft over to our booth in the nonprofit area. I horrified to see that this music was accompanying four scantily clad women actually doing a hula dance in the exhibit hall. I placed a formal complaint at the society booth but no one really understood the problem. I was told that “There are men hula dancers too, but they are sick in the hotel” (you can’t make this stuff up). Some conference authorities came over and told me that I would be ejected from the hall if I didn’t stop harassing the hula dancers. The academic head of the society was a woman. I emailed her and described how biased workplaces were creating a science work environment that is hostile to women. She did not reply. The presence of scantily clad women in an exhibit hall gives people who will harass women an environment that permits harassment. It’s not overt, but it is tacit permission to behave badly.”
Kristin Ellis, the Community Builder
Kristin Ellis is a community-focused biologist and open science enthusiast. She’s interested in understanding how to reliably share, reproduce, and scale biological workflows, and is currently tackling that challenge as the Director of Strategic Initiatives at Opentrons. She is also working as part of the Mozilla Open Leaders program, where she’s learning how to build effective open-source communities. She is a member of the iGEM Interlab Measurement Committee and the SynBioBetty slack group, and is a regular contributor to the Global Community Biology Initiative’s Biosummit.
“My siblings and I grew up in a house on a winding dirt road amidst the sprawling peanut and cotton fields of Alabama — a place that, to many, is known for being extremely poor in terms of both education and wealth. It wasn’t until leaving (and experiencing more of the world) that I understood how that affected what we learned, what we did (and didn’t) get access to, and how it informed our paths. I’d never even heard of a PhD until I got to college! It was at the University of Alabama at Birmingham that I first learned what scientific research is, which opened an entirely new universe of possibilities. After becoming the first woman in my family to graduate from college, my plan was to pursue a PhD in Biochemistry.
That didn’t exactly work out, because soon after I left Alabama I learned about the worlds of synthetic biology, DIY bio, open source hardware, and startups. These, to me, represented groups who thought deeply about how more people should have access to technology and understanding regardless of background, gender, or ethnicity. We are all stakeholders in building the future of biology, and I knew instantly that I wanted to be a part of that world!
It’s a testament to the openness of this community that I was able to meet (and pester!) a few people on Twitter and fly out to my first SynBioBeta as barely more than a curious spectator. Five years later, I’m collaborating with scientists all over the world through Opentrons, where we’re enabling more people to have access to critical technology and designing a platform that makes biology easier to engineer. Here, I can use my own expertise and privilege to give back and think critically about how to include more people — through partnerships like the one we launched with iGEM, improving our protocol library, and enabling collaborations with people all over the world.”
It’s certainly not always easy to be a woman in this world — I’ve faced both pointed and institutional sexism while trying to find my way. However, I think it’s important to highlight that through connecting with women in the SynBioBetty slack group, I’ve found the courage and language to have deeper discussions about diversity and empowerment at our company. As a team, we’re now fully committed to defining clear internal goals and milestones for increasing diversity across the board! And with advice from many in SynBioBetty, I have also become a better advocate for myself and gained insight into how to effectively advocate for others. This is an incredible community, and I am excited to build for the future with these amazing women!
Marilene Pavan, the Fighter
Marilene Pavan is a biologist and specialist in strategic management of technical innovation. Her research focuses on developing approaches for faster, scalable, reproducible research, and she is currently tackling these challenges as Manager of the DAMP lab. Pavan is also a member of the STEM Pathways program, through which she helps train and empower the next generation of scientists, especially those from underrepresented groups.
“I come from Sao Paulo, Brazil, a tough city where many people like myself do not come from very privileged backgrounds. Growing up, I studied in public schools in a poor neighborhood. When I finished high school, I was sure that I would not be able to pass the entrance tests for any good universities. I enrolled in prep school without knowing how I would be able to pay for it by the end of the month. I asked for a job in the prep school every single day. One day the supervisor changed his mind and gave me a job. I would receive my salary at 9AM and immediately give it back to the school, to pay for the fee.
My path was not easy. I would sleep for only 4.5 hours each night. I worked in the morning, studied in the afternoon, and went to class in the evening. My mom would help read literature books for my exams and tell me summaries. I had no car – to feel safe in the tough neighborhood, I would keep a knife in my purse if I needed to defend myself. In this spirit, I finally overcame odds and successfully “re-did” my high school. I was admitted to the best university in Latin America. To this day, I am still like this: I consider myself a fighter, and I do not give up.
That was my background, and here I am now. A Latin American woman in the United States working in science, living her best life and her biggest dreams. It sounds like a nice story of overcoming obstacles, but I would like to point out something important: I was, and still am, white. This is a privileged quality. People do not cross the street when they see me walk in their direction, and no one follows me around in shopping centers. Even in the US where I am not considered stereotypically “white” (I am often mistaken for European), I still am not thought of as a minority and do not face such discrimination.
What I want to tell you is this: if my journey has already been so challenging, if it already puts me at a disadvantage compared to others, can you imagine how difficult it must be for millions of people from minority backgrounds who face even more roadblocks that make it impossible to pursue their dreams? I would like you to take a few minutes to think about your story and the privileges that got you to where you are. Now, think about the struggles that people without these privileges must deal with, and what you can do to make their lives easier. You must do a constant exercise to not judge what people know or what they are capable of doing, just based on the color of their skin, their original country, or their gender.
It is important for all of us to be active supporters for people of minority and disadvantaged backgrounds. There are many ways to give back and make space for everyone. You can support your colleagues, volunteer with young students in high schools, and promote and be part of “minorities in science” initiatives.
And, most importantly, do not give up. Believe in yourself and in the others around you. Hold hands and lift each other up.