Accepted Paper:

Gender politics and synthetic biology: Practice, practitioners and potential  

Author:

Pablo Schyfter (The University of Edinburgh)

Paper short abstract:

Synthetic biology remains an unsettled field without clear boundaries or typical practitioners. I examine the building of identities in synthetic biology: identities based on disciplines with consequential differences in gender politics. I study the gendered making of ‘the synthetic biologist.’

Paper long abstract:

Synthetic biology has captured great attention and funding due to its practitioners' bold and loud pronouncements of finally delivering 'authentic' engineering with biology. It is also a field that enrols many disciplines with radically different gender politics. Research consistently finds that biology and engineering have the highest and lowest percentages of women practitioners, respectively. Such polarity is a result of dissimilar histories and ongoing assumptions about the disciplines and their members. Simply stated, engineering has been and remains thoroughly masculinised, whereas many fields in the biological and medical sciences are (comparably) open to women.

Alongside the birth of disciplines, identities are created and policed: synthetic biology and 'the synthetic biologist' are being built in concert. In this paper, I attend to the gendered making of disciplinary and personal identities. Practitioners' quest for engineering authenticity has set established engineering fields as disciplinary exemplars. So too might the authentic synthetic biologist be rendered in the form of the authentic engineering: as a masculinised subject.

Disciplinary and personal identities remain unsettled and contested in synthetic biology. As such, potential exists to study the making of a new person—the synthetic biologist—and expand our understanding of a field with elevated weight and standing. Moreover, potential exists to help shape a new technoscientific field with gender politics better than those of most science and engineering today, and to demonstrate to synthetic biologists the responsibilities they have to each other.

Panel T100
Feminist Technoscience Studies in Unexpected Places: (Intra)Activism and Social Justice