What was the goal of the survey?

The goal of this survey was simple: to examine how diverse and inclusive iGEM really is, and to then provide suggestions that might help make this organization more inclusive.The UAlberta iGEM team was interested in investigating the age, sex, gender, sexuality, and race demographics of North American teams to examine if there were any inclusion disparities within North American iGEM teams. We asked these questions with the expectation that iGEM would follow the stereotypical trends of STEM, that being that the majority of iGEM members will be white, straight, cisgender (those who identify as the gender they were assigned at birth) and male. We also took into consideration past work done within iGEM to explore similar issues. We are also basing our survey off the iGEM survey conducted last year by iGEMs Diversity Committee, and work done by Paris Bettencourt 2013.

Creating a more inclusive space, and improving diversity starts by being aware of the downfalls of the organization, and from there moving to address any issues that may prevent the organization from achieving diversity. This survey and our suggestions are in no way meant to make anyone feel bad or lesser, they are also not meant to call anyone out but rather to spark conversation between all members so that we can all make change.

Team UAlberta thinks that a survey of this nature, and suggestions that may allow iGEM to improve its inclusivity is important because like all things. iGEM is imperfect and there is always room to improve upon established systems. iGEM is also the perfect organization to spark change in, as iGEM is an organization that is driven by young people's idealism, providing the perfect atmosphere to drive progress within STEM both scientifically and socially.

Ultimately, we hope this survey and our findings can contribute to conversation within iGEM teams and the iGEM community as a whole, while identifying changes that must be made to ensure that iGEM is a safe and inclusive space that opens doors for women and minorities. This is our community, and by gaining a better understanding of our demographics and using suggestions to inform structural change we can foster positive development.

Team UAlberta also recognizes that there has been an increase in general presence of women and non-White university students in North America, even in STEM fields. However, the inquiry was premised on the sociologically observed disproportionality of access to academic activities much like iGEM.

What were our findings?

As this survey was a preliminary survey, the sample size was very small and is only representative of a very small portion of the iGEM community. However, it was found from the responses that men and women each make up approximately half of the iGEM community. Despite this, the majority of responders feel that there should be a greater presence of women in iGEM. We think this important because it speaks to the idea that while women may be present in a group that does not mean their doles are given proper credence or held in high enough esteem. The majority of the people surveyed identify as Caucasian and all surveyed identified as cisgendered. This identifies two large issues in the iGEM community. To be a truly diverse community, iGEM should be striving to have more than just a few ethnicities represented, and there should not be a disproportionate Caucasian majority. Moreover, there are many non-cisgendered individuals, but they are severely underrepresented in the iGEM community. Both of these trends are emblematic of the issue within our society of opportunities being closed to those who are racialised and those who exist outside the gender binary. Among the individuals that did not identify as straight, the majority have not faced discrimination and feel iGEM is an inclusive space, though the majority of responders do not feel that iGEM has a strong LGBTQ+ presence. This represents a common issue of LGBTQ+ individuals being “welcome” in spaces, but not being able to properly celebrate their differences. On average, people feel their opinions are more valued in iGEM than outside of it. We think this is a very positive trend and think that it can only be improved upon. The average age of responder is 20 years old and started iGEM when they were 19. For most responders, this is also their first year in iGEM. This reinforces our statementin our original conceptualization of the survey that iGEM is young. We see this as a positive thing, because it allows for less embedded ideas to take hold and change to prosper.

Building on past work: Comparison to the work of Paris Bettencourt, 2013

Our survey is an expansion on the Gender Study conducted by the Paris Bettencourt iGEM team in 2013. While the 2013 study examined the numbers of women and men on iGEM teams, our survey looked at multiple identities to get a more complete picture of the diversity of teams. Additionally, we provided multiple options for gender identification besides male or female (genderqueer, gender fluid, transgender), and also provided respondents with the opportunity to self-identify. We sought to build on the important results on gender provided by Paris Bettencourt to provide a more intersectional examination of iGEM demographics.

While Paris Bettencourt evaluated data from iGEM teams around the world, our survey controlled for regional and cultural variation by collecting data only from North American teams. Paris Bettencourt’s regionally sorted data shows that they found that less than 40% of iGEM team members in the Americas were women, making women the minority on iGEM teams on the American continents. 53% of the individuals who completed our survey were women, showing a slight female majority among teams surveyed. This increase may be due to regional differences (the breakdown of countries included in Paris Bettencourt’s “Americas” data is not given), or may reflect a change in the gender demographics of iGEM teams in the years since 2013. Our data provides a picture of North American iGEM teams race, gender, and sexuality demographics in 2018, showing both progress in gender balance since 2013 and an expanded view of the diversity of iGEM teams and the experiences of marginalized groups in iGEM.

To build on the results we obtained, we followed the approach of giving recommendations used by Paris Bettencourt. We expanded on the suggestions given in 2013 with actionable items for individual iGEM teams, to drive inclusivity and change at the student level.

Average= 1.7 years, n=17

Average= 2.6, n=17

Average= 20.01, Standard Deviation= 1.68, n=17

Average= 18.88, Standard Deviation= 2.00, n=17

Average= 7.71. n=17

Chi Square value (null hypothesis=5) = 0.008

Average= 6.94, n=17

Chi Square value (null hypothesis=5) = 0.18

Average= 6.82, n=17

Chi Square value (null hypothesis=5) = 0.29

Average= 4.41, n=17

Chi Square value (null hypothesis=5) = 0.51

Average= 6.06, n=17

Chi Square value (null hypothesis=5) = 0.60

Average= 7.35, n=17

Chi Square value (null hypothesis=5) = 0.001

What does this data show us?

The data collected suggests that among the teams surveyed, women and LGBTQ+ people are significantly involved and welcomed in iGEM. The data also shows that iGEM participants are predominantly Caucasian, and cisgendered. In this regard, this survey shows that improvement is needed. As we must attempt to create racial diversity so Caucasian people do not have a large majority, we must also make sure that individuals feel there is a strong LGBTQ+ presence, and try to improve the amount of women of colour in our community. Additionally, while respondents indicated that they feel respected in iGEM we should foster that feeling. Despite having a small sample size, this survey acts as a stepping stone to a further discussion of inclusivity and diversity in the iGEM community. We would also like to acknowledge that there were no indigenous peoples among respondents to our survey, we find this regretful as making space for Indigenous peoples should especially be a priority for Canadian iGEM teams.

Suggestions to improve inclusivity

Surveys are an important part of getting to know a community, particularly in the case of iGEM: a very specific community which is relatively new, but exists in a field in which gender roles and the exclusion of women, gender, minorities, and people of colour is common. But knowing the data is only part of getting to understand this complex issue and is only the first step on the road to change. We hope that every team can do their own research into the issue of inclusivity but here are some methods (that we ourselves are trying to use) to get this started.

UAlberta iGEM would also like to recognize that these suggestions are not comprehensive and are imperfect. We welcome feedback and would love to have a conversation about this topic if you are interested! Moreover with all our suggestions we do not want to treat any group as a token (meaning they are included in a superficial manner for the sake of appearing inclusive) and ask that no one treat a group or particular person this way!

Aim to make a safer space

First of all we would like to acknowledge that it is impossible to make a perfectly safe space because there will always be aspects of a group that make individuals uncomfortable. However, we believe that all iGEM participants should aim to make their teams a safer space. Before we can create a safer space, we need to look at what a safe space is, why it is important and how to make a safe space. [4] [6]

What does a safer space look like?

As Judith Shuleviz puts it in her New York Times article “safe spaces are innocuous gatherings of like-minded people who agree to refrain from ridicule, criticism or what they term microaggressions… so that everyone can relax enough to explore the nuances of, say, a fluid gender identity.” [3] This means that a safe space is quite simply put a place where everyone feels welcome, free to be themselves, express themselves, and speak their minds. They do this knowing that the group has an agreement to be respectful of each other, and to disagree in a healthy way. An important part of establishing a safe space is also having a diverse group. This starts by being a group that is trying to break down barriers which may prevent people of diverse backgrounds from joining the group.

In the status quo, many spaces in society are not safe spaces. Team UAlberta does not believe that iGEM is actively making a safe space. We believe that we can and should do better.

How does this apply to iGEM?

As a STEM competition, iGEM faces the stereotype of not seeing safe spaces as a valuable goal to work towards. However safe spaces are very important in every field. This is particularly true in science for two reasons. Firstly, it allows all members to speak without worry that they may be attacked, allowing people to more comfortably share their knowledge, suggestions, and perspectives. This provides a greater breadth of information from which a better project can be made. Secondly, it allows for more diverse groups of people to be present on your team. With a diverse group comes diverse perspectives which inherently betters the quality of a project.

How do you make a safe space?

At this point hopefully you are thinking about how to make a safe space. But how do you go about making a safer space? There are many ways, but different things work differently for different groups of people. So, we encourage everyone to do their own research and build a model that will work best for their team. But here are a few ideas [5]:

  1. Listen - it is important when making a safe space that everyone feels heard. This means that groups should talk openly about their concerns without having these concerns questioned or addressed in that moment. That can look like one on one check ins (done hopefully by a PI), or conversation circles, these are times just to listen.
  2. Make your group diverse - It is very hard to have a safe space when people might not feel represented, as a lack of representation may lead to them feeling isolated, or like there is a lack of empathy. By making a group diverse you make all people feel as though they have a place in this community.
  3. Make this a goal and make change - Any group can say they are diverse or inclusive. We must work together towards actual change. This means that we must remove our blindfold to those things which might be holding our group back, and fight for improvement.
  4. Reevaluate - Once you have created a safe space your work is not over. You must work to continue and develop it.
  5. Start the conversation

    Having a conversation seems simple (and it is) but it’s very important because the best way to find out what the issues are and to start to address them is to talk. Every team should try to sit down and talk honestly and openly about inclusivity on their team. They should be able to do this in a safe space where individuals won't be attacked for their opinions but listened to so that their team can grow and become more inclusive, because no team is perfect. These conversations can take place in an open conversation, through an online forum, or through check ins- but they should happen. Don’t be afraid to address problems of inclusivity head on!

    Actively try to make your space more diverse

    It is important to make your group more diverse. This does not just look like having a diverse group in terms of faculty, or having a few token people of colour or queer folks. What making a diverse group looks like is breaking down the barriers that may prohibit particular groups of people from entering iGEM. We recognize that having a diverse group should not forced but should be natural. However, in order to break down status quo diversity should be strived for actively.

    Examine How You Build Your Team

    Research by the American National Academy of Science has shown that diverse teams outperform homogeneous teams on problem-solving tasks. [1]The creation of homogeneous teams is thus an obstacle to success, but few people set out to create teams that are intentionally non-diverse. A phenomenon called “homosocial reproduction” leads individuals to judge people more similar to themselves more favourably. [2] Homosocial reproduction can lead the people in charge of recruiting and evaluating applicants to unintentionally build a team that looks a lot like themselves. In the 2018 paper “Stemming Implicit Bias in High-Tech STEM,” Lisa Fisher provides self-evaluation for STEM companies that can be modified for use by iGEM teams to evaluate their team-building process:

    - How is “fit” bias present in our applicant screening processes? Who is conducting interviews? - How can we better train interviewers to reduce bias in the process? - How can we design interview questions to reduce bias in the process? Having a panel of multiple people rather than one individual evaluate applications also helps to lessen the biasing effect of homosocial reproduction. The more diverse the application panel is, the less likely it is that a homogenous team will be created.

    Encourage more diverse groups to apply

    One way to make your team more diverse and inclusive is by getting people from all walks of life to apply. Try to target communities that might not typically apply to iGEM, may not have access to iGEM, or may not feel that iGEM is the space for them. This means actively asking people to apply that aren't the standard under status quo.

    Your team can do this is by giving recruitment presentations, or partnering with groups that are focused on diversity. Some strategies you could use are recruiting from courses outside of STEM, getting in contact with sororities, talking to LGBTQ+ groups on campus, or speaking with groups of people of colour to get them to talk about and promote iGEM. This means that you will just have more people of different backgrounds applying, and will inevitably have a more diverse group of people chosen for your team.

    An equity team

    An equity team is a great way to create a more inclusive space. Equity teams are usually composed of individuals that have made a commitment to remain impartial and maintain confidentiality. This is group that members of the iGEM team could bring complaints to about things like sexism, racism, sexual predation, or just general concern caused my iGEM or something outside of it. Often groups make their own equity policy and establish an equity team based on what best suits them. Here are some resources if you think an equity team would be beneficial for your team:



    [1]McBride, L. Inclusion of diverse groups within STEM leads to Increased Creativity, Innovation. Insight into Diversity, Special Report: STEM Programs. 2017.

    [2]Fisher, L. Stemming Implicit Bias in High-Tech STEM: The Vision of Project Include. Journal of Applied Social Science, 12(2): 127-144. 2018.

    [3]J. Sholevitz, “In College and Hiding From Scary Ideas,” The New York Times.

    [4]K. Ho, “Tackling the Term: What is a Safe Space?,” HARVARD POLITICAL REVIEW.

    [5]G. C. Nagayama Hall, Ph.D., “Creating Safe Spaces,” Psychology Today , 13-Jul-2017.

    [6]C. Graham, “Five Strategies To Create A Culture Of Inclusion,” Five Strategies To Create A Culture Of Inclusion, 20-Jun-2018.