These MIT Women Are Addressing Gender-Based Inequity in the Biotech World

Supermajority Education Fund

February 2, 2020

On Wednesday, three women associated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) announced steps to foster more women-led biotechnology startups. 

Sangeeta Bhatia, a biomedical researcher, MIT professor, and biotech entrepreneur, Susan Hockfield, a former MIT president, and Nancy Hopkins, a molecular biologist and professor at MIT, formed Boston Biotech Working Group in December 2018 to explore why these gender imbalances exist and how to mitigate them. After receiving a $175,000 grant from the Sloan Foundation in 2019, the group researched founder rates in science and engineering from 2000 to 2018. They found that if men and women founded biotechnology startups at the same rate, there would be about 40 more biotech companies than currently exist and that less than 10 percent of 250 biotech startups by MIT faculty —22 percent of whom are women — were headed by women.

The group shared these results on Wednesday, as well as the news that five venture firms had pledged to do all in their power to “ensure the boards of directors for companies where we hold positions of power are 25% female by the end of 2022.” Fourteen percent of board seats are currently held by women in venture firms. The group also asked that academic deans encourage female faculty members to take mini-sabbaticals at venture firms.

Hopkins told Supermajority News that MIT has written new policies on family leave and addressed other issues women faculty have raised over the years. Changing attitudes and behaviors, however, has been harder.

“I think the best you can do is to keep at it, keep educating people, and, most important, keep changing the institutions. At some point, the behaviors begin to change to match the new reality. But it is a slow process,” she said.

Hopkins added that when she began at MIT in the 1970s, male biologists began to shift their thinking to get involved in biotech businesses. But men tended not to recruit women or to bring women into the business world in general at that time, and “ since the women were not recruited, they stayed with the basic science,” she said. “Basic biology research is fascinating — still — so it was fine not to participate in commercialization. Many men do not do so, either. It only becomes a problem when people who would like to do so don’t, or can’t because there is no path that makes it possible for them to do so.”

Hopkins said that these imbalances in biotech startups mean that the world will miss out on research women might do that would lead to new drugs or other benefits for society. 

“The loss of not making sure this happens is huge,” she said.

She added that faculty who don’t wish to be part of biotech startups also need to understand the commercialization process, so their trainees know how to head a startup. Diversity of experiences and interests and ensuring that certain medical problems won’t be overlooked are all other reasons women must head biotech startups, she said.