Women who strive to make new biological discoveries at universities are awarded less than half the number of patents than their male colleagues.

According to a new study by researchers at Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and University of California, Berkeley, female faculty members in the life sciences receive patents at only 40 percent the rate of men. Patents are doors into the commercial world of royalties, consulting fees, and paid memberships on the boards of corporations, creating another source of income difference between men and women.

The patent gap can also lead people to think that women tackle less challenging or important scientific problems. However, the study of 4,227 individuals with at least five years experience as university researchers showed no evidence that women do less significant work than men in fields like biochemistry, genetics, organic chemistry, health sciences, and related areas.

What’s holding women back then? The researchers cite one major reason as the lack of a professional “old girls” network between people in academia and their counterparts in commerce, those in pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and chemical companies.

Another hurdle involves women’s concern that pursuing commercial opportunities could hinder their university careers. During interviews with faculty members in life sciences, women expressed worries about the negative impact commercial pursuits might have on their teaching responsibilities, collegiality, and research quality.

These factors are holding back older women more than younger ones. For the 35-year span covered by the data collected, women who earned their Ph.D. degrees between 1986 and 1995 received patents at a higher rate than those who began their research career between 1967 and 1985.

“Among the most senior faculty, a larger gender gap persists, reinforced by women’s limited commercial networks and traditional views of academic careers,” notes Toby Stuart of the Harvard Business School. “For younger women patenting is more widely embraced, although a gender gap remains.”

Stuart, along with Waverly Ding of the University of California, Berkeley, and Fiona Murray of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, published their findings in the Aug. 4 issue of the journal Science, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Working without a network

Stuart and his colleagues note that the gap extends across virtually all fields of science, from astronomy to physics. Profiting from university research, especially that which is paid for by tax dollars, remains controversial. Despite this debate, however, academic entrepreneurship continues to rise.

Membership on scientific boards composed of academics that advise industry is increasing. But in a related research project, the Stuart-Ding-Murray team found that out of 771 scientific advisory board members in a sample of biomedical companies, only 6.5 percent were women.

It was this look at advisory board members that triggered the research into females and patents in the life and health sciences. “I realized that there were virtually no women!” Stuart recalls. “This got me interested in the gender gap.”

Stuart and his colleagues looked at 4,227 individuals with at least five years post-Ph.D. experience in the life sciences at universities. Of 3,324 males, 13 percent had their names on patents. Of 903 women in the sample, only 5.6 percent held patents. The males amassed a total of 1,286 patents compared to just 92 for the women.

In addition to collecting data, the research team interviewed female scientists and males that they considered peers. These interviews were done at only one university, albeit one with a large number of patents in life sciences. “We have chosen to keep [the university’s] identity confidential given the sensitive nature of the interview material and the relatively small number of faculty involved,” Stuart explains. He did say that the university is located in New England.

The interviews revealed that two factors loom large. One is the lack of networking. Most of the women had few contacts in industry. “Lacking these connections, women found it time-consuming to gauge whether an idea was commercially relevant,” Stuart notes. “In contrast, men often described an industry contact as a precursor to patenting. Hampered by their narrow networks and concerned about the time it would take to ‘shop’ a patent around, several females were deterred from completing a patent filing.”

The interviews also showed that women are concerned about the consequences that commercializing their work might have for their academic careers.

The plus side

On the plus side, females were likely to be encouraged by males with whom they worked on promising research. While the men sought advice from contacts in their broad networks, women depended more on close relationships with male collaborators to initiate a patenting process.

“Formal institutional sponsorship was also important for women,” Stuart points out. Many women commented that their university’s patent and technology transfer office provided valuable industry contacts, advice, and encouragement to develop commercial aspects of their research findings.

Interviews also brought to light differences between older and younger women scientists. The most senior women felt excluded from industry relationships to the point where few of them applied for patents. Some younger but experienced females incorporated patenting into their research strategy, but still felt at a disadvantage due to lack of networking across the university-industry boundary. It was only among the youngest faculty members that the investigators found women “undaunted by the challenges of combining academic and commercial science.”

Increasingly, they conclude, “young female faculty are similar to their male colleagues. They view patents as accomplishments and as a legitimate means to disseminate research. If this trend continues, we may observe further declines in the magnitude of the gender gap.”