Around that time, Hopkins embarked on her Google search. She was particularly interested in SABs because they consist mainly of working scientists who are often invited by the company's academic founders — a social process that could reveal conscious or unconscious biases against female academics. And membership in advisory boards comes with advantages: it can tip members off to promising tools and areas of research, and lead to other lucrative prospects, such as consulting. Plus, for a few meetings per year, board members are paid a sometimes-substantial fee, given stock options, or both.
The first name Hopkins looked up was Eric Lander, founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. She typed “Eric Lander companies” into the search engine. Scrolling through the results, she came upon Verastem, a cancer stem-cell company founded in 2010 by Lander and others, including Robert Weinberg, a cancer researcher at the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge. She counted 14 people on Verastem's SAB; all were men.
Entering “Phil Sharp companies” brought up Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, a Cambridge-based firm co-founded by the Nobel prizewinning molecular biologist at MIT in 2002. The company, which is developing therapies based on RNA interference, had one woman on its 11-person SAB. “Bob Langer companies” yielded a handful of the 20-plus firms that the MIT bioengineer has helped to launch, including Taris Biomedical in Lexington, Massachusetts, which focuses on genitourinary conditions, and the biopharmaceutical company Blend Therapeutics in Watertown, Massachusetts. Neither SAB included any women. (Weinberg and Lander say that they were not involved in selecting the SABs at Verastem, and Langer that he was not involved with the process at Blend or Taris. Sharp says that at Alnylam, choosing the SAB required “agreement between” the founders, chief executive, venture capitalists and other people already brought into the company.)
Hopkins included in her search a few scientists from other institutions, such as Harvard University in Cambridge and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. Overall, among the full-time professors affiliated with a sample of 14 companies she reviewed, only 5% of founders or SAB members were women. Although boards change over time, that fraction was much the same as of last month.
Last July, Hopkins began circulating her results to a handful of faculty members at MIT and to scientists further afield. Vicki Sato, a professor of biology and management at Harvard with a long career in the biotechnology industry, says she could not believe what she was seeing. “I was stunned by the sampling she had done, and told her she had to be wrong,” says Sato. “But I knew deep down she was right.”
More rigorous studies have reached similar conclusions. In a paper published last October, Murray, Toby Stuart at the University of California, Berkeley, and Waverly Ding at the University of Maryland in College Park reviewed all publicly available lists of US biotech SABs, starting in the 1970s and including about 500 companies. Although women represented between 12% and 30% of academically active PhD holders over that time period, the percentage of women on SABs never exceeded 10.2% (see 'Inequality on board'). Even when the researchers compared male and female faculty members with similar levels of achievement, measured by factors such as publication and citation counts, male scientists were roughly twice as likely to join SABs as female ones.