Stuart says that the disparity is most likely to be a result of social connections and unconscious bias among men. “If you're male, you're slightly more comfortable shooting the shit with your male colleagues, and they're who come first to mind when you're putting these boards together. You may assume — 'oh, she's got two kids, she's not going to be interested' — and then not invite her.”
But companies say that they can have difficulty finding women with the right experience, because there are fewer women than men in academia overall. At Alnylam, says Schimmel, the type of science and the diseases it hopes to treat “considerably narrow the size of the pool of highly qualified senior investigators, regardless of gender”. (A statement from the company notes that women represent “nearly 30%” of Alnylam's management team.) At Taris, says Langer, the SAB had to include mostly clinical experts in urology, who are generally men. And Verastem found that there were few prominent female biologists who focus on cancer stem cells, says chief medical officer Joanna Horobin. At least one woman declined the offer to join the SAB, Horobin says, because she was already working with a competing company.
The academics and biotech companies interviewed for this story say that they hope the situation will change. At Alnylam, people have “discussed openly the issue of gender and the SAB”, says Schimmel. “All of us support strongly the idea of addressing the 'gender problem' in a thoughtful way and are actively working on it.” In Lander's opinion, more important than the make-up of the SAB is the selection of the company's board of directors — who “control the entire company”. Two out of seven directors at Verastem are women.
Women can also make the first move, says Helen Blau, a stem-cell biologist at Stanford University in California, who has served on the advisory boards for several start-ups. She broke into commercialization by patenting discoveries and talking to companies at conferences about her work. The effort paid off: companies have licensed at least a dozen of her patents, which helped Blau to get consulting jobs, board invitations and now her own start-up, Didimi in Berkeley, California.
Hopkins, meanwhile, has not let the issue lie. After she discussed her data with MIT colleagues, the group decided to forward the findings to the university's provost, Chris Kaiser. It turned out that Lydia Snover, director of institutional research at MIT, had already started mining faculty CVs across the entire institution for information about activities such as patenting, technology licensing and participation in SABs. If MIT finds gender differences and can help to do something about them, it will, says Snover. “We want all [faculty members] to be involved in the same way.”
Hopkins wants to see all institutions follow MIT's example. In academia, people used to believe that “time would fix things naturally”, and that women would eventually move up the ranks, she says — and this attitude may still exist when it comes to academics moving into industry. “I think [the gender disparity in SABs] is what universities would look like if we hadn't stopped, analyzed what was going on, and changed it. If you don't put attention to it, it doesn't happen.”