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Discrimination Charges At Synthetic Genomics

Synthetic Genomics, a titan in the local biotech scene, is being sued by a former executive who says the company’s “boy’s club” leadership team routinely discriminated against women.

Teresa Spehar, the former vice president of intellectual property at Synthetic Genomics, filed the lawsuit Sept. 7 in San Diego Superior Court. Spehar alleges that she and other women at the company were paid less than their male counterparts, were promoted less often, were left out of important meetings, and were subjected to gender stereotypes and humiliating language.

The complaint specifically lambasted J. Craig Venter, the world-famous geneticist who co-founded Synthetic Genomics and serves as the company’s co-chief scientific officer and board chairman. According to the complaint, Venter engaged in discriminatory behavior at a dinner meeting held with executives from General Mills and Synthetic Genomics, where he made sexually inappropriate remarks to a female former executive, Michele Champagne, while placing an arm around her.

Spehar is seeking unspecified damages due to the loss of earnings and employment opportunities, along with emotional distress, the lawsuit states.

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Synthetic Genomics said the allegations are without merit, and that the company plans to “vigorously defend” against the claims made in the lawsuit.

“Discrimination because of gender goes against everything I stand for,” Oliver Fetzer, CEO of Synthetic Genomics, said in an email. “Synthetic Genomics is committed to an environment with a positive culture in which the best minds — regardless of gender, ethnicity or race — are equally valued.”

Spehar’s Termination

Spehar, who worked at Synthetic Genomics for eight years, incurred the company’s ill will after complaining about discriminatory treatment, said Josh Gruenberg, one of Spehar’s attorneys.

The lawsuit states that Spehar was fired from the company in June for “bogus reasons,” including that her superiors thought she was not happy with the company and that the company’s chief technology officer, Todd Peterson, did not trust her. Peterson later told Spehar that he never made those claims, according to the lawsuit.

“My client was wrongfully terminated in part due to her gender,” Gruenberg said. “Their reasoning was nonsense, absurd, and illegitimate.”

Women Missing in C-Suite

Out of the top 16 executives listed on Synthetic Genomics’ website, only two are women. According to the lawsuit, the problem permeates through lower ranks as well. Only 23 percent of senior directors at the company, 20 percent of directors, and 18 percent of senior scientists are women, the lawsuit states.

Fetzer acknowledged the disparity in an email, but said the problem is industrywide.

“Across the life science industry there is a persistent gap in male and female representation on boards and in c-suites,” Fetzer said. “This has been an area of focus and commitment from the Synthetic Genomics board and our entire leadership team.”

The company said it has a full diversity initiative and gender diversity is an “important focus area” within that initiative.

When pressed for specifics, the company’s spokesperson said Synthetic Genomics has been working with consultant firm Lead Inclusively, which specializes in corporate diversity programs, implementing the programs in recruitment and professional development. The company said it could not clarify an exact date when it retained the consultant or if the consultant was hired before or after the lawsuit was filed.

Spehar said such programs were not a focus at the company during her tenure.

“I was on the leadership team for the last three and a half years,” Spehar said in an email. “The issue of gender diversity, or diversity of any kind, was never addressed or ever spoken of at any meeting that I have attended. As a VP, I have never heard of any diversity initiative.”

Gender Disparity Permeates Industry

Adequate representation of women in biotech continues to be a major problem throughout the industry. In 2015, Nature reported that women held only 20 of the 112 management positions at the ten highest-valued biotech companies in the world. Out of San Diego’s 34 public life science companies, only two are led by female CEOs.

The problem also persists in the academic science industry. In July, two lawsuits were filed against San Diego’s Salk Institute for Biological Studies in which three women professors alleged that they got fewer promotions, lower pay, and less research funding compared with male colleagues.

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