Tracing the construction of gender bias: Key findings

From a study I co-authored on gender bias at the boundary of academia and industry in the life sciences/biotech field, here are the 5 KEY FINDINGS:

FYI: We interviewed 56 life scientist professors at one elite university (22 women and 34 men, out of a possible total of 30 women and 118 men) from 2004-06 on their entrepreneurship, what we call “commercial science” (e.g., filing patents, starting companies, sitting on corporate scientific advisory boards, etc. The beauty of this study is in its generational cohort design: We divided faculty into cohorts based on when they received their PhD (“distinguished” faculty prior to 1975; “senior” b/w 1976-85; “mid-career” 1986-1994; and “junior” 1995-2001). We used these cut-offs based on the emergence (c.1975) and establishment (c.1985) of biotech as a new and legitimate field for faculty participation. This allowed us to compare across generations gendered commercial science experience as it “started-up” as a new field for faculty participation. N.B.: It also is an almost entirely white and Asian faculty sample, and race/ethnicity is not treated here.

The first finding is that women were explicitly denied entry into this new field, when venture capitalists visited campus and invited only male faculty to participate in potential biotech ventures. Their actions mirrored current gender bias in academia, a field established in the “male” image of the rational, impartial scientist. The numbers demonstrate this; there were only 4 women and 46 men in the “distinguished” generation.

The second finding is that this early exclusion of women contributed to the new field of commercial science also being structured in a “male” image, and that this shaped gendered, cognitive interpretations of who was a credible entrepreneur (answer: men): repeatedly in our interviews, both men and women described men as being more entrepreneurial, more willing to take risks, more suited for commercial science. Even the majority of the women (and there were few) participating in commercial ventures did so in partnerships with men that they described as men taking the lead with them following behind. (Prof. Cecilia Ridgeway has a great book chapter on how gender bias shapes emerging fields in The Declining Significance of Gender?).

The third finding is that this sharply constrained opportunities for women as the commercial landscape evolved over time, mainly through a lack of role models/mentors and fewer entry points into commercial science. Even as the field became established and opened up for broader participation from all faculty, younger women effectively had only senior male faculty as entrepreneurial mentors; in fact, senior women often were negative role models in this case. Mentorship and role modeling not only offers younger people a guide to practice and behavior, but also access to the networks that build up around the collegial relationships essential to academic – and commercial – collaboration (see especially McPherson et al.’s “Birds of a Feather: Homophily in Social Networks” ($) in the 2001 Annual Review of Sociology for more on the concept of homophily and connections bred through similarity).

The fourth finding is that – thirty years into the contemporary practice of commercial science – gender bias is shrinking and commercial opportunities for junior faculty are becoming more equal. The important caveat here is that women continue to face additional barriers to access based on their disproportionate responsibility for childrearing, esp. (and obviously!) childbirth. Though working towards tenure tempers all junior faculty’s enthusiasm for commercial ventures (given, for example, the comparable ambiguity of patenting as a relevant performance metric versus the established importance of publication rates), junior women faculty are also often considering childbirth or raising young children during this time. This leads into all of the existing realities of gender inequity in balancing work and family, the challenges for working mothers (see Correll’s recent research on the “motherhood penalty“), and circles back to my earlier point about the lack of strong role models for these young women. It was striking in interviews the cognitive dissonance for young, entrepreneurial women starting families listening to their senior, male mentors – whose typically non-working or part-time employed wives had raised their children, leaving them free to pursue their external commercial activities in addition to academia – encourage them in their pursuits. (See Xie and Shauman’s “Sex differences in research productivity: new evidence about an old puzzle,” in American Sociological Review, 1998, 63(6) for more on the characteristics of spouses of male v. female faculty).

The fifth finding is that institutional support can facilitate women’s entry into commercial science. Technology licensing offices, for example, offer all faculty guidance, training and assistance on taking their research to market. Yet, the persistent lack of institutional clarity and transparency on performance metrics leads to confusion for junior faculty over what matters in building their careers. The racially charged fallout over MIT’s denial of tenure for African-American professor James Sherley, and its past failure to equitably promote and support female faculty, demonstrate some of the worst outcomes from such an opaque, political process. But a more subtle influence is the lower likelihood of women and/or minority candidates to take risks – such as pursuing commercial ventures – if they are unsure of the payoff and already cognizant of uneven barriers to success in their field. (Prof. Mary Frank Fox’s research goes deeper into the need for clear and established performance metrics to ameliorate gender bias in academia.)

This study illustrates in detail the emergence and evolution of gender bias in one professional context over time. It’s a small sample in a atypical environment, but it straddles a range of venues – academia, science and entrepreneurship – and offers many parallels to women’s experiences in other areas, such as medicine, law or business.


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