It’s a big difference. And this isn’t just an issue of feeling good about social progress. At its core, this is an economic issue. There’s no way to accurately quantify these lost opportunities in terms of job creation or economic growth. More troubling is the likelihood that new therapeutics or other technologies are being missed. How many promising drugs are never developed because of our failure to support and promote female academic entrepreneurship?
We’ve already acknowledged the simplest explanation for this lack of equality — there just aren’t as many female faculty members. Progress at the academic level is certainly necessary since a woman isn’t likely to file a scientific patent or form a startup if she never becomes a scientist in the first place. But women currently comprise ~34% of researchers in STEM fields, and the percentage of women filing patents or becoming scientific founders appears to lag significantly behind (4). So what other factors contribute to this deficit?
Female faculty work more hours overall, yet spend less time conducting research. The additional hours are taken up by an increased burden of administrative and other professional responsibilities (5). Add in the fact that women often shoulder greater domestic responsibilities and it’s no surprise that there is less time to devote to activities of academic entrepreneurship.
Another major disadvantage is that women often don’t have strong networks of colleagues and industry contacts. Support from such networks is critical to access funding, find technical assistance, collaborate on projects, and interact with industry. Even evaluating whether something has sufficient commercial relevance to pursue a patent can be prohibitively time-consuming without an experienced network to lean on (6).
Programs to Foster Female Entrepreneurship
Recognizing the importance of such networks, several universities are now launching programs to provide women with educational resources and opportunities to build networks with the ultimate goal of increasing participation in academic entrepreneurship.
Here’s a look at two such programs started by institutions partnered with Osage:
Launched in 2015, the Columbia University Women Inventors Network (WIN) is dedicated to engaging, encouraging, and empowering women inventors in Columbia’s research labs. The organization sponsors numerous events throughout the year that focus on topics such as the licensing process or forming a startup. In addition to being an educational resource, these events give members an opportunity to interact and start building their own networks. Those two things combined put its members on the right path to start moving their research from the lab to the market. The reception at Columbia has been overwhelmingly positive so far, and the group has seen their membership grow into the hundreds.
The Empowering Women in Technology Startups (EWITS) program was launched by the University of Florida in 2012 with a mission to educate, inspire and empower women to pursue leadership roles in technology-based companies worldwide. Over the course of several weeks, participants work as a virtual management team to create a simulated company under the oversight of an experienced entrepreneur mentor. Once the business plan has been finalized, each team “pitches” to a group of female investors. This process not only helps participants better understand the process of moving innovation into the marketplace, but gives them a chance to network with other participants, mentors, and investors. The program has proven very popular with over 250 women participating since its inception.
These institutions deserve to be recognized for their efforts, but there is still significant work to be done. As a community, we should start by resisting the presumption that gender disparity in academic entrepreneurship will naturally resolve with the increasing number of female faculty appointments in STEM disciplines. Such a passive approach is destined to preserve the status quo for decades. If we accept that it is necessary to realize the full potential of academic entrepreneurship, then we must find ways to support female faculty and facilitate their efforts to pursue opportunities that go beyond the lab.
Necessity, after all, is the mother of invention.