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Studies show gender gap still exists on scientific advisory boards

While the number of women holding positions on scientific advisory boards (SAB) is increasing, it may come as a surprise that those numbers are still low.

According to the U.S. National Science Foundation, although the proportion of women in industrial and academic science is on the rise—women make up 25 percent of tenured academics in science and engineering and more than 25 percent of industry scientists in research and development—when it comes to women serving on SABs, the numbers aren’t as positive. And, women are losing out because of it: membership on these boards is not without its advantages, including access to promising research, consulting opportunities, and monetary rewards.

A paper published last October by MIT Sloan Professor Fiona Murray, along with Toby Stuart at the University of California, Berkeley, and Waverly Ding at the University of Maryland in College Park, examined the gender gap in corporate SABs. As part of the study, they reviewed a national sample of 6,000 life scientists whose careers span more than 30 years. In addition, the group looked at all publicly available lists of U.S. biotech SABs, including about 500 companies.

Murray and her colleagues found that since the 1970s, although between 12 and 30 percent of academically active PhD holders were women, the percentage of women on SABs never exceeded 10.2 percent. And, when comparing male faculty members with female faculty members, researchers found male scientists were approximately twice as likely to join SABs.

Murray says, “The secret club [of men] used to be going to the lab and conferences. That world has changed a lot, but we have a new venue where it is still difficult for women to play a similar role.”

Why the discrepancy? Research points to several possibilities: the smaller number of women in these fields, family demands, or the “old boy network.” However, the overriding cause may be that women simply aren’t being asked to join SABs. Murray’s research says both women and men were more apt to join SABs 20 years after completing their PhDs—when the major stress of child rearing years is over—which suggests that family responsibilities are not holding back women any more than men.

Although some companies say they do have difficulty finding women with the necessary experience due to the fewer number of women than men in academia overall, some prominent female scientists disagree. In fact, when she interviewed women at a leading institution, those interviewed said they would be more than willing to serve on SABs but were rarely invited. Stuart added that this could also be due to an unconscious bias by men, who might be more apt to invite their male colleagues, rather than women, when compiling SABs.

Many in academia and biotech are encouraged that change is afoot and MIT agrees. In a step to address the situation, since 2012 MIT has been reviewing faculty CVs to gather information about who is doing what in terms of patenting, technology licensing, and participation in SABs. The results are not yet in, but Murray and her colleagues are encouraged that things are moving in the right direction.

Fiona Murray is the faculty director at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and a Professor at MIT Sloan, where she teaches in the Entrepreneurship Development Program.