Gender gaps in the STEM field discussed during monthly Small Business Economic Research Forum

By Miriam Segal, Research Economist

On Wednesday, March 9, 2016, Dr. Waverly Ding presented at the Office of Advocacy’s monthly Small Business Economic Research forum. Dr. Ding is an Associate Professor of Management and Organization at University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. Her research focuses on high-tech entrepreneurship and strategy, knowledge transfer between universities and industrial firms, the U.S. biotechnology industry, and the labor force in science and technology.

During the presentation, Dr. Ding discussed general themes from her research on the gender gap in patenting and female life scientists’ absence from corporate scientific advisory boards. Since these types of commercial activities are important to entrepreneurship, this gender gap may undermine women’s entrepreneurship in science and technology. One particularly interesting element of Ding’s work is that she and her co-authors examine both supply- and demand-side explanations for gender gaps. That is, are there too few female scientists interested in commercialization, or is commercial science not interested in women?

Some important notes are as follows:

  1. STEM fields refer to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Entrepreneurship in these areas is of particular interest to policymakers due to its potential for innovation, job creation, and economic growth.
  2. PhD recipients in STEM fields face a choice in career paths between academia (i.e., with the goal of obtaining tenure as a professor) and industry.

Patenting is an important first step to commercializing one’s research and ultimately translating this research into profit and jobs. Accounting for factors such as field of study, publication count, and their university’s patenting activity, Ding found that female academic scientists still patented at 40% the rate of their male counterparts. Not surprisingly, there was a strong correlation between life scientists’ patenting activity and variables such as publication count and the receipt of five-year grants from the National Institutes of Health. More interesting is the correlation of patenting with the presence of industry researchers in a scientist’s social or professional networks.

The importance of having relationships with industry researchers is worth highlighting for two reasons. First, Office of Advocacy research from 2014 found that among PhD recipients in STEM fields, industry-funded postdoctoral employment increases the likelihood that women—but not men—will participate in entrepreneurial ventures.[1] Second, fostering social networks with female scientists and industry researchers is something that can be addressed by policy.

But what if female life scientists are simply less interested in patent-heavy fields? Dr. Ding created a measure of “commercializability” of each scientist’s research based on the research keywords in publications, and did not find any indication that research interests explained the patenting gap between genders.

Beyond patenting, Ding has also researched the presence of female academic life scientists on corporate scientific advisory boards (SABs) of biotechnology companies. Accounting for educational, professional, and social variables, male scientists in the sample were almost twice as likely as female scientists to serve on scientific advisory boards. Employment at a university with an active technology transfer office (TTO) increased the likelihood of participating on a scientific advisory board for all scientists, with a particularly strong effect for women, leading Dr. Ding and her co-authors to note the importance of social networks for women in an additional context beyond patenting.  Additionally, this finding suggests that technology transfer offices can help facilitate the commercialization of female scientists’ research by promoting networking.

At present, Dr. Ding is working on new research that examines the career trajectories of women who receive PhDs in STEM fields (i.e., academia versus industry) as well as the gender gap in earnings between scientists and engineers who follow each trajectory. Perhaps counterintuitively, preliminary results suggest a larger earnings gap between men and women in academia than in industry. Possible explanations include family conflicts and differences in attrition rates between women in academia and those in industry. Most academic institutions evaluate tenure at a professional age of eight years, and that institutional structure may conflict with women’s family planning.

Although challenges still exist for female entrepreneurs in STEM fields, Dr. Ding’s research identifies the mechanisms of several gender disparities and suggests that policies aimed at social networking are a promising solution.

Citations for some of Dr. Ding’s work are as follows:

Ding, Waverly W., Murray, Fiona, and Stuart, Toby E. “From Bench to Board: Gender Differences in University Scientists’ Participation in Corporate Scientific Advisory Boards.”Academy of Management Journal 56.5 (2013): 1443-1464. Electronic.

Ding, Waverly W., Murray, Fiona, and Stuart, Toby E. “Gender Differences in Patenting in the Academic Life Sciences.”Science 313 (2006): 665. Electronic.

[1] This paper included scientists in all STEM fields, not just those in the life sciences.

Comments are closed.