Craig Venter's genomics company slapped with gender bias lawsuit

gavel and money
A new lawsuit filed by a recently fired top exec at Synthetic Genomics claims routine gender bias against the company and its executive team.

New allegations painting the industry as a “boys’ club” that routinely treats women with disdain have been raised in a lawsuit by a former vice president of California-based who was fired in June Synthetic Genomics.

The suit (PDF) was filed in San Diego on behalf of former VP of intellectual property Teresa Spehar against the 25 top executives at the company, which was co-founded by Chairman Craig Venter, noted in the field of genome sequencing. Venter is identified in the lawsuit for having made a crude remark about a top woman executive at a client meeting with General Mills in which she was the only woman.

The lawsuit says women often fled Synthetic Genomics because they were routinely paid less than men, received fewer resources to succeed than their male colleagues and were less likely to be promoted.   

The action, first reported by the San Diego Union Tribune, says Spehar was notable because she became one of only two senior women to attain a senior executive position in a company in which women “are routinely discriminated against in hiring, promotion, retention and inclusion—all most notably at senior levels.”

It says top male execs ignored and even made light of the issue, recounting a meeting in August 2016 in which former director of nutritional product development Michele Champagne was the only woman. It claims Venter put his arm around her, pulled her close and said so others could hear: “Looks like you're the only one without a penis here!”

Champagne is expected to be a witness in the trial, the newspaper reports.   

Even though the board had been apprised of the company’s treatment of women in an analysis and report, Spehar was fired in June for “bogus reasons” after raising concerns with other top executives, one of her attorneys told the newspaper.

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Allegations of gender bias are not new for the industry. The new suit follows gender discrimination actions taken by women against big Pharma players including Merck & Co., Novartis and Bayer, as well as a highly publicized suit by a former exec at biotech investment firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. Ellen Pao lost that suit, but attention surrounding it stirred intense discussion in Silicon Valley and the biotech and pharma industries about the need to evaluate their treatment of women, at least at the moment.

But a report released today from MassBio and Lifestream on the gender diversity gap in life sciences sector in Massachusetts shows the industries continue to miss the chance to attract top talent because women see them as male-dominated and uninviting.

The report found that 46% of women interviewed said they would reject jobs from companies because they had an all-male board, all-male management, and because they were interviewed only by men. It found that while 40% of companies in the industry that responded see themselves as inclusive, while only 9% of women view their companies with the same regard.

“Not only does this report provide quantitative evidence of the visible gender inequality in the life sciences industry, it also explains how a confluence of factors harm women’s career advancement at all stages despite women entering the pipeline with equivalent potential and motivation,” said Karl Simpson, CEO of Liftstream said in a statement.

“The industry needs to fix these problems so women can participate equally throughout the talent pipeline, thereby ensuring the future leadership at the top of companies is gender diverse and fully includes women,” he said.