Corporate Men

When companies turn to academe for scientific advisors, women rarely get the call -- and a new study suggests gender bias is the main culprit.

March 19, 2013

Women in academic science are half as likely as comparably qualified men to be invited to join corporate scientific advisory boards of biotechnical firms, and a new study suggests the problem lies in the mindset of corporate leadership. The problem can, however, be remedied by championing leadership and networking among women in colleges and universities, the authors posit.

“It’s not a new story that women are discriminated against or judged upon in the process of being selected for these advisory boards, but what is actually intriguing and novel is that very few people in the past have nailed down reasons,” said Waverly W. Ding, assistant professor of management and organization at the University of Maryland at College Park. “[I]n this particular setting, it’s more about the evaluation process rather than intention and qualification of women.”

Ding, along with Fiona Murray of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Toby E. Stuart of the University of California at Berkeley, examined the initial public offering prospectus of every biotech firm that went public between 1972 and 2002, creating a pool of 511 firms that had hired a total of 720 scientists to serve on their advisory boards. Even though the proportion of women earning doctorates more than doubled over the decades of data the authors analyzed, participation rates on advisory boards have lingered in the single digits -- generally lower than across the corporate spectrum, Ding said.

Among the 720 scientists, only 49 -- or about 7 percent -- were women. Yet among 6,000 randomly selected science Ph.D.s, women made up about 30 percent.

The gap is comparable to the gender disparity that exists in the realm of patenting, “which is notable because of a pivotal distinction between the two activities: the decision to patent (conditional on the filing of an invention disclosure) is solely at the discretion of the university’s technology transfer office, whereas advisory board membership depends on an invitation from a company,” the study reads. Historically, men patent at more than twice the rate of women.

Scientific advisory boards typically review large research projects and serve as symbols of expertise to investors. For scientists, membership often means lucrative networking opportunities, personal compensation and stock options. And these days, many universities encourage their faculty members to build business ties.

The authors explored two competing models explaining the gender gap present on advisory boards serving biotechnical firms in their study, published in the Academy of Management Journal. The demand-side approach suggests the presence of systematic bias that limits the number of opportunities for female researchers, while the supply-side approach attributes the gender gap to differences in skill and preference that cause more men to pursue participation on advisory boards.

The authors tested (without success) two hypotheses to support the supply-side theory, examining if women were underrepresented because they devoted more time to their families or chose research fields with little commercial activity. Neither hypothesis explained the gender gap.

“Among the 49 female (advisory board) members, 42 transitioned 11 or more years after they obtained their Ph.D. with the hazard peaking in approximately the 20th year after the Ph.D., the same peak year for the male (advisory board) scientists in our sample,” the study reads, adding “there is no evidence that the gender gap declines in regressions that account for gender differences in the revealed preference for commercial-sector work.”

Instead, the researchers found support for two of three hypotheses suggesting the advisory board culture is rife with stereotypes against female researchers.

“If it is the case that gender-based stereotyping causes women to be held to a higher standard than men for recruitment to positions for which women are atypical ... we would expect to observe -- as we do -- that a track record of scientific achievement and managerial experience will be more important for women than for men,” the study reads. Similarly, “being in a direct-tie network conducive to generating referrals to commercial science is particularly important for creating opportunities for women faculty.”

Ding and her fellow co-authors argue the gender gap can be remedied by fostering leadership and networking among female scientists at the academic level, and by guiding technology transfer offices to connect faculty members with female entrepreneurs.

“Every woman we interviewed who had held a senior administrative role believed that the visibility of the office led to consulting and advisory board opportunities and bolstered their legitimacy in the commercial sector,” the study reads. “Therefore, for women faculty who are willing to take on senior administrative assignments, such as deanships, we believe that active university policies to match women to these positions will help to create opportunities for women in commercial science.”

As the study showed scientists were most likely to join advisory boards two decades after receiving their Ph.D., Ding said the data cutoff could explain the slight decrease in advisory board participation among women earning their Ph.D.s between 1981 and 1995. Based on preliminary evidence, she said the trend has not reversed in the first decade of the 21st century, adding, “I wish I had more reason to say the picture is brighter.”


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