Women academics in STEM fields have come a long way over the past 25 years, although there is much further to go, especially for women in underrepresented minorities. For instance, according a recent National Science Foundation report, the proportion of female full professors in science and engineering more than doubled from 1993 to 2013, now breaking the 20-25% threshold. However it should be noted that the pipeline to this success has skewed to specific disciplines, with women currently earning about half of college and graduate degrees in the biological sciences, but only about 10-25% in the physical sciences and engineering. Not surprisingly, women’s lower representation in STEM academic leadership is also reflected in a lower rate of commercialization of their innovations.
Why do academic women innovators commercialize less and what can be done about it?
According to VentureWell, the nonprofit higher education network dedicated to instilling engineering student and faculty invention and entrepreneurship, bias in STEM impedes the commercialization path for women faculty. This report could be read as depressing (women engineers are woefully underrepresented as senior faculty or venture founders) or hopeful (the early-career pipeline has about twice as many women as 25 years ago):
- Venture Founders: 12% are women
- Engineering Workforce: 15%
- Full Professor in Engineering: 9%
- Tenured and Tenure Track Engineering Faculty Combined: 14%
- Associate Professors of Engineering: 16%
- Assistant Professors of Engineering: 23%
- Doctorate in Engineering: 23%
The report argues that women engineers' lower commercialization rate is due to the following:
- Gender discrimination
- Behavioral and attitudinal factors
- Work-life balance & networks
- Experience & training
While gender discrimination is an ongoing reality for women in many STEM fields with multiple policy implications, this post focuses on what female faculty and students can do for themselves to commercialize their innovations.
- Get educated – the mindset and a skill set associated with commercialization and entrepreneurship can be taught! This is what the National Innovation Corps is all about – there are currently over 40 programs at universities across the U.S. The University of Minnesota version, MIN-Corps attracts a disproportionate number of women faculty and grad students to our value proposition design workshops and other programs– they provide a safe environment to build out a business concept using the rigorous Lean LaunchPad methodology.
- Seek advice from industry experts and entrepreneurs – Most I-Corps programs include external mentors, who bring a real-world perspective to commercialization.
- Connect with a like-minded peer group – If you are lucky enough to be at a university with an I-Corps program, you discover an instant network of academics interested in commercialization. It’s harder, but not impossible in other settings – maybe start a monthly lunch group (you can probably get you tech transfer office to help).
- Utilize university and professional resources – Many universities offer programs to bring women innovators up to speed on commercialization. For instance, the University of Minnesota recently offered a series of Creators Workshops for women STEM faculty and grad students. The Ohio State University offers a suite of programs for women academics in STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine). Go meet with someone at your university’s technology transfer office. Or, start getting involved in professional groups (e.g. Society of Women Engineers, the American Association of University Women), and industry groups.
- Emulate role models – While there aren’t many women technology entrepreneurs, there are some. Dr. Sita Pappu at the University of Washington is just one example. Purdue University’s Office for Technology Commercialization highlights their women innovators. The U.S. Department of Energy also features female innovators.
- Maintain your sense of humor – The world is full of idiots, but that doesn’t mean that you have to internalize their negativity. When British scientist Tim Hunt made a disparaging comment about “distractingly sexy” women in the lab, female scientists around the world responded on Twitter with ironic comments and selfies of themselves at work.
- Persist! – Yes, there is bias. Yes, there are professional distractions and personal obligations. But more and more women STEM academics are moving up the career ladder, while universities are increasingly encouraging commercialization of research-derived innovations. We just may be at the tipping point of female faculty innovators entering the commercialization mainstream.