Every industry has its own unique culture, but few have the opportunity to shape the evolution of that culture from the earliest stages of industry development. As a young field, synthetic biology has an amazing opportunity to shape not only the technology, but also the culture of the industry as it grows. Already, many in the field are working to promote diversity and equitable representation within the industry. Now, SynBioBeta has joined the ranks of those committed to this effort, starting with its London 2017 conference at which nearly 47% of speakers were women.
The figure reflects an enormous effort and is a proud accomplishment for the organization. Although SynBioBeta has always extended invitations to a majority of female speakers for its conferences and aimed for equal gender representation, the attendance of female speakers never managed to break out of the mid-to-low 30% range. The astonishing improvement in SynBioBeta’s 2017 London conference numbers owes in part to its new partnership with Ginkgo Bioworks, the microorganism engineering company that has already gained a reputation for its strides in achieving an equitably diverse employee base.
Christina Agapakis, creative director at Ginkgo, said “I’m absolutely thrilled to be working with SynBioBeta to create diversity in the field and see how much of a difference this effort has made in such a short time. I hope to see it go beyond what we’ve done here and reach further out into the industry.”
SynBioBeta CEO Kate Wildauer likewise commented that, as an important networking hub for the industry, her company has the opportunity to lead a movement toward diversity in the still-young industry. “SynBioBeta views its role as supporting and encouraging growth in the industry, but we see the responsibility to lead the way by offering a balanced conference in terms of diversity in all areas,” she said.
With a majority-female management and staff, SynBioBeta itself certainly sets an example of what’s possible for startups and companies in the synbio space. Nevertheless, the company’s leadership was aware that the gender ratio represented in their conference speakers left something to be desired. As strong believers in the practice of selecting the best-qualified candidate for any position, SynBioBeta set out to reclaim access to the talent and expertise of a section of the synbio industry—the female section—that had previously been underrepresented at its conferences. A change in approach was called for.
Part of what set this change in motion was conversations with Ginkgo, who has emerged as a leader in confronting diversity issues in the industry. The up-and-coming startup, which has been growing like a weed, noticed in 2015 that as the company built a larger and larger team, representation of women on that team was only getting worse. Ginkgo realized that when it comes to addressing diversity issues, the earlier the better. They initiated a new approach of their own, and last year published a status report on their progress toward promoting diversity. In the matter of a year, they managed to raise the proportion of female employees from 23% to 37.5%. The company is continuing to chip away at these numbers, as well as address other disparities in employee representation such as race.
So how did Ginkgo and SynBioBeta do it? How did both companies pull off such dramatic improvements in gender parity? Much of it had to do with taking a different approach to recruitment. More resources and effort were poured into the process of reaching beyond existing networks of employees’ contacts and truly identifying the best person for the job. By rewriting the question being asked from “Who do we know that would be good for this position?” to “Who out there in the world would be best for this position?” both Ginkgo and SynBioBeta were suddenly reaching into corners of the industry network that hadn’t been reached before—and they emerged with excellent candidates under their wings, many more of them female.
Some other changes in approach were also put in place by the two organizations. SynBioBeta instituted more flexible scheduling for its London conference in order to accommodate speakers with session conflicts. Ginkgo has taken up a policy of writing job postings that are as inclusive in their wording as possible. And both intend to keep diversity of all varieties at the forefront of their awareness, setting an example for the industry that they hope others will take note of and follow.
SynBioBeta and Ginkgo will keep up the momentum of their partnership toward tackling diversity issues with a special Ginkgo-sponsored women’s networking event at SynBioBeta’s next 2017 conference in San Francisco, as well as travel grants for underrepresented minority students and postdocs interested in attending the conference. Speaker applications for next fall’s conference are now open, and SynBioBeta once again hopes to reach a broader pool of applicants by reaching above and beyond its current networks and numbers. You can help SynBioBeta and Ginkgo in their mission to make the culture of synbio a diverse and inclusive one by spreading the word, raising awareness, and applying.0