SABs are not the only commercial forum in which academic women seem to be disadvantaged. US women also receive patents about 40% as often as men, start businesses half as often and receive significantly less funding for the start-ups that they do launch. This is not just a US problem: a study released in April 2012 by the Royal Society of Edinburgh found that women are underrepresented on the boards of UK science, technology, engineering and mathematics companies. That is despite the fact that including women seems to be beneficial: a 2012 report from Credit Suisse in Zurich, Switzerland, found that worldwide, companies with women on the board have higher share prices than those with all-male boards.
So what is going on? For SABs, Hopkins thinks that the answer is simple: women are not asked. When she noticed the stark patterns in board memberships, Hopkins asked some of her female colleagues — including one she believed was an “absolute star” — if they had ever been invited to serve on boards. All of them said no. “In the end, these stories are very sad,” says Hopkins. “People know they're excluded, and it's costly professionally. They're embarrassed to talk about it. It's like not being asked to dance.”
But the picture is not so simple, says Paul Schimmel, a former colleague of Hopkins who is now based at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, and is a co-founder of Alnylam. He says that he has tried to ensure equal gender participation in his lab and his companies for the past 20 years. “There's no lack of effort, I tell you,” says Schimmel. But serving on a board “can be a lot of work” — conference calls, e-mails, travel several times a year and thick documents to review — and women often bear the majority of domestic work and child care. At least one woman has turned down Schimmel's invitation to serve on an SAB because of family responsibilities, he says. Indeed, research has shown that female academics with children are less likely than those without to patent their discoveries.
Some prominent female scientists disagree. Carolyn Bertozzi, a chemical biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who has two young children and one on the way, says that she is always willing to make time to serve on the research advisory board at GlaxoSmithKline, which entails attending two-day meetings twice a year for “generous” compensation. The meetings teach her about what it takes to make a drug, including medicinal chemistry, regulatory issues and intellectual property; that helps with her start-up, Redwood Bioscience in Emeryville, California, which has two female SAB members out of four. Bertozzi acknowledges that her situation is unusual: her female partner is a stay-at-home mother. But Bassler, too, says that the work involved in SABs is worth the sacrifices. “If I were asked to serve on a board, I wouldn't do something else,” she says. Bassler has been invited to serve on two SABs in her career, but “of course” would accept another invitation if it arose.
Research seems to support the idea that it is a lack of invitations — not a lack of time — that reduces female membership in biotech SABs. Murray, Stuart and Ding found that both men and women tend to join SABs on average around the 20th year after completing their PhDs — often a time when the major strain of child rearing is over. This suggests that family obligations are not holding back women more than men. And in interviews at a leading institution that Murray declined to name, women consistently reported they had rarely been invited to serve on their colleagues' SABs — which was not the case in a matched sample of men.