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Synthetic Genomics Faces Gender Discrimination Suit

A former employee alleges that J. Craig Venter and others at his company treated women unfairly.

Sep 21, 2017
Ashley P. Taylor

Craig VenterWIKIMEDIA, MAURICIO RAMIREZA former attorney for J. Craig Venter’s company, Synthetic Genomics (SG), has sued the La Jolla-based biotech for gender discrimination.

Teresa Spehar filed the lawsuit on September 7 in San Diego Superior Court, alleging that female employees at the company received less pay and fewer promotions than their male counterparts, as The San Diego Union-Tribune reports. The suit also claims that the company’s female employees were excluded from meetings and “denigrated with gender-based stereotypes,” the Tribune reports.

The lawsuit alleges that SG co-founder Venter participated in the discriminatory acts. The suit claims, for example, that at a meeting of company executives, Venter put his arm around the only woman in the room, “pulled her close to his upper body, and loudly said words to the effect of ‘Looks like you’re the only one without a penis here!’” Buzzfeed News reports. The complaint adds that the female executive told Spehar that she was “mortified and humiliated” and left the company, according to Buzzfeed.

One of Spehar’s lawyers, Josh Gruenberg, tells the Union-Tribune that Spehar, the company’s former vice president of intellectual property, was penalized for complaining about the discriminatory treatment. The lawsuit alleges that after being fired this June for “bogus reasons,” Spehar suffered losses of earnings and employment opportunities as well as emotional distress.

This gender-discrimination suit follows two others at the Salk Institute, also in La Jolla, this July. Beverly Emerson, one of the Salk Institute faculty members who sued the Institute, was a coauthor on a 2016 document reporting that women at Salk receive more funding from the National Institutes of Health than men yet have smaller labs and receive less money from Salk.

SG plans to fight the lawsuit. “While I cannot specifically comment on ongoing litigation, what I can tell you is I passionately believe it is without merit and we will vigorously defend the claims made in the lawsuit,” SG CEO Oliver Fetzer tells the Union-Tribune.

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