Nancy Hopkins started Googling her colleagues in spring 2012. She mentally scanned the hallways of her institution at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge — along with the campuses of other elite institutions — for the offices of men she knew who had founded companies. Then she clicked on the websites of their firms, and counted the number of men and women serving on their scientific advisory boards (SABs), a prestigious position for researchers who steer the company's scientific direction.
It was an informal exercise, rather than a systematic survey. But Hopkins, a molecular biologist at MIT and a long-time campaigner for women in science, found the results shocking. A sample of 12 of the companies she examined had a total of 129 SAB members; only 6 were women. “I was completely stunned,” says Hopkins. “And it made me sad. I thought, 'gee, why don't these men want to work with [MIT] women?' We have such incredible women faculty.”
The proportion of women in industrial and academic science has shot up over the past 20 years. According to the US National Science Foundation, women make up 25% of tenured academics in science and engineering and more than 25% of industry scientists in research and development. But when it comes to academics engaging in commercial work — patenting their discoveries, starting biotech companies or serving on SABs — the picture is less progressive. Studies have confirmed Hopkins' impression that even leading female scientists are often absent from these roles. “The secret club [of men] used to be going to the lab and conferences,” says Fiona Murray, who studies life-sciences entrepreneurship at MIT. “That world has changed a lot, but we have a new venue where it is still difficult for women to play a similar role.”
Experts in industry and academia speculate that the disparity could reflect the small numbers of women in certain specialized fields; the demands of family life; or a residual male clubbiness. Whatever the reasons, this stubborn gender gap hurts everyone, says Bonnie Bassler, a molecular biologist at Princeton University in New Jersey. “I think the companies would do better science by having the best people on their board. And I think these women, who are great scientists, would do better science in their labs by having access to these ideas.”
“Everybody's losing,” says Bassler.
For much of the 1980s and 1990s, there were more than 11 men for every one woman in the science faculty at MIT. Things started to change 20 years ago, when Hopkins, as the first chair of MIT's Committee on Women Faculty in the School of Science, and her team drove through major increases in the hiring of women. By 2006, one out of every five biology faculty members on the MIT campus was a woman.
At a dinner last April to honor these achievements and mark her retirement from the lab, Hopkins spoke about the work still to be done. She talked about a list she had been given by a graduate of Harvard Business School in Boston, Massachusetts, showing the names of scientists in the area who had received funding from a local venture-capitalist firm. Among 100 names, only one was a woman. The list would not have surprised Hopkins more than 30 years ago, when she had been told by a colleague that “women aren't allowed” to found biotech companies. But to see such a dearth of academic women in modern biotechnology was upsetting.