September 12, 2018

Why biotech is failing women and how we can do better

Male CEOs and co-founders still dominate the STEM industry space -- including the synthetic biology sector. Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash.

As a female research scientist, I became painfully aware of the gender parity issues that STEM fields face. And, although I am no longer an active scientist in academia, I continue to pay attention to what is (and isn’t) being done to resolve gender inequality.

A recent Rock Health report revealed that although the percentage of women in healthcare leadership is growing, the growth rate is painfully slow. For example, the percentage of female board members at Fortune 500 healthcare companies grew from only 21% in 2015 to 22.6% in 2018. The numbers were similar for Fortune 500 executives. Hospital leadership, while it sees the highest percentage of female leadership, actually dropped slightly from 36.4% in 2015 to 34.5% in 2018. Concerningly, the numbers for female VC partners and CEOs in the digital health space remain dismally low, at only 12.2% and 10.2%, respectively, in 2018.

But what about synthetic biology? Our field is much younger than most others that have historically suffered from gender inequality. Has its youth and growth during a period of heightened activism around gender parity enabled the synthetic biology sector to escape the plague of gender inequality?

Over the past few weeks, I have been talking to a number of synthetic biology CEOs, founders, and when I really sat down and thought about it, I realized that I hadn’t spoken with a single woman. I began to wonder if this experience was a true representation of the population, or if my sample had been skewed. With the help of a colleague, I recorded the gender of the CEO of 236 companies in the synthetic biology industry. Dismally, only 14.4% (a total of 34) were led by women.

The vast majority of synthetic biology companies led by women were small, with no more than 50 employees — an observation also reported in the Rock Health report. For all intents and purposes, it seems as though the gender trend at large in health and biology-related industries is mirrored in the synthetic biology space.

women leadership

The percentage of women leadership in health and biology sectors, including synthetic biology, is dismally low. Numbers for Fortune 500, hospital executive, and digital biology sectors sourced from Rock Health.

We must recognize that women have ideas that are just as good as those of men, and that women are just as qualified to lead a team. We also must work to foster creativity, drive, and confidence in women from a young age. But to do this, we all need to recognize the size of the problem around us. It is easy to become complacent, especially when our own experiences deceive us.

Growing up in the midwest, I never heard anyone talk about gender inequality. No one told me that I would have to work harder because I was a woman studying science, or that I might face discrimination or bias.

I wasn’t unpleasantly surprised when I entered the “real-world.”

The first research lab I worked in as an undergraduate was comprised mostly of women. My PhD lab was an even mix of men and women. My postdoc was in a lab that was diverse both in terms of race and gender. In that same lab, I accepted a promotion to manager of one of the largest projects in the lab. My first foray into industry led me to a startup whose first handful of employees — and CEO — were women. Throughout my entire education and career I hadn’t suffered from bias or discrimination, nor had I seen other women suffer from those things.

Or so I thought.

Because I wasn’t taught to recognize the problems staring us in the face, I failed to realize the following: the principal investigators of my undergraduate, PhD, and postdoc laboratories were all male. In my multidisciplinary postdoc lab, the computer science-focused work was done by men — only a single woman was on the team and she left when she had her first baby. Similarly, the startup company I worked for during 8 months was a team of women until the data analysts — all male — were brought on board.

The problem is multi-faceted. Even when interested in science, girls and women aren’t encouraged in the same ways as their male counterparts. Their qualifications are questioned, and tenacity and drive, while applauded in men, is seen as a negative character trait in women. Early-career women are in dire need of female role models who can show them that women belong in STEM fields just as much as men do.

Fortunately, there are several talented female role models in synthetic biology. Christina Agapakis, Jenny Rooke, Una Ryan, Vonnie Estes, and Jaleh Daie are five incredibly driven women paving the way for gender equality in synthetic biology. All five have not only extensive science backgrounds but also years of experience leading and investing in biotech and synthetic biology companies. And all five are passionate about supporting women leaders in synthetic biology.

Christina Agapakis is creative director at Ginkgo Bioworks and is an active speaker and writer on diversity in STEM industries. She will be speaking during a focus session on emerging women leaders in synthetic biology at SynBioBeta 2018. She’ll also be leading a lunch and learn session at the meeting, where attendees can discuss and ask questions about the challenges and rewards of being a woman leader in synthetic biology.

As managing director at 5 Prime Ventures and an investor in several companies, including synthetic biology companies Zymergen and Caribou Bio, Jenny Rooke is demonstrating that women play a key role not only in leadership but in pushing the field forward through investments. Similarly, Una Ryan has founded several companies, and is an angel investor particularly focused on supporting women. She is Managing Director of Golden Seeds, a Silicon Valley-based angel investment group focused on companies led by women. Vonnie Estes, with her twenty years of leadership experience in the chemical and biotech industries, also shows what women can strive for and achieve. She received the 2017 Rosalind Franklin Award for Leadership in Industrial Biotechnology.

Jaleh Daie, a Women in Tech Hall of Famer and the “first woman” in numerous leadership positions throughout her storied career (including a stint on the President’s National Science & Technology Council), is especially vocal about getting more women into biotech and venture capital. Said Daie in a recent interview, “To make the best investments you need diversity of thought, diversity of training, diversity of background and diversity of experience. So I am keen on gender equity.” She went on to say that she is even more concerned about the “tribal behavior” she sees permeating Silicon Valley, meaning that “investors just reach out in their own limited network and they bring on people who are just like them.” According to Daie, this behavior has likely helped lead to the dearth of women investors in biotech. The field has historically been male, and those male leaders continue to reach out to the people they know — classmates and colleagues — who are also men.

It is also critical that women who have achieved positions of power support their female colleagues. According to the same Rock Health report that showed us how the biotech industry is failing women, women are more likely to bully women, whereas men bully both genders equally. In fact, the longer a woman was in the workforce, the less likely she was to desire a woman boss. Why? In a workforce dominated by men and with minimal space for women leaders, women compete with one another.

But as Sarah Addison Allen said, “We’re connected as women. It’s like a spiderweb. If one part of that web vibrates, if there’s trouble, we all know it, but most of the time we’re just too scared, selfish, or insecure to help. But if we don’t help each other, who will?”

While the underrepresentation of women in STEM persists in both academia and industry, there is hope. With leaders like Christina Agapakis, Jenny Rooke, Una Ryan, Vonnie Estes, and Jaleh Daie paving the way, the future for women in synthetic biology looks brighter every day. I look forward to the day when a discovery made by a woman or an innovative company led by a woman is no longer exciting news but the status quo. I look forward to the day when great ideas become genderless. And I look forward to the day when we cease to be great women scientists or great male scientists but instead, simply, great scientists and great leaders.

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