Women life scientists’ participation in entrepreneurship is relatively low compared to men’s. For example, a study of MIT’s science and engineering faculty found that 40% of men but only 20% of women had founded a company (Bhatia, 2021). Some of the reasons persist, such as bias and barriers, but there has been a fair amount of effort to address them recently. Women entrepreneurs often say that unbiased opportunities are more common now, although things still need to change in many ways. It would be incorrect to assume things are more difficult for all women entrepreneurs everywhere. Women can take advantage of many opportunities available in biotechnology entrepreneurship.
Business Funding Bias
On average, women entrepreneurs get less business funding than men (Krause, 2016; Martin, 2015), receiving 2–3% of VC investment capital (Brush, 2017; Taylor, 2017). For perspective, in 2016, $64.9 billion went into male-founded startups and only $1.5 billion to female-founded startups (O’Brien, 2017). The low figure is partially due to smaller deals for women (Zarya, 2018). Possible explanations for less funding for women entrepreneurs include the male-dominated network of venture capital and the low percentage of female partners in investment groups (Kerpen, 2018), as well as conscious or unconscious bias of investors (Krause, 2016; Martin, 2015).
Women have relatively lower entrepreneurial self-efficacy (Shimasaki, 2009; Miranda, 2017); however, at least some of what looks like low self-efficacy reflects a realistic assessment of actual differences in how women are treated in academia and industry. For example, less support for women in academia results in fewer credentials that might attract venture capitalists, such as honors or leadership positions (Krause, 2016; Martin, 2015).
Known barriers to funding from venture capital and inherent biases in businesses, especially technology (McConnell, 2017), continue to exist for women entrepreneurs. Yet, if successful, programs supporting entrepreneurship can draw from a more representative pool of skilled individuals by including more women. Several factors have been proposed as contributing to barriers for women:
Fewer Role Models
Female role models guide women to see the potential value in entrepreneurship. Although it is increasing, the number of possible role models has been low (Saeid, 2014).
Male-Oriented Entrepreneur Identity Perceptions
Others postulate that because the definition of an entrepreneur follows historically male identity standards, it conflicts with the perceived identity of some women (Greene, 2018). This effect is stronger in predominantly male industries. High-growth businesses, including biotechnology, are often in male-dominated industries (Marlow, 2005), which results in a masculine stereotype being associated with these businesses even more than other businesses.
“Typical” Male Traits Being Valued
Previously, businesses often valued what were considered at that time typically masculine traits over typically feminine traits, although rigidity about gender traits has been softening in recent years. Previously, learning skills manifesting typically masculine traits and practicing typical entrepreneur-defined achievement strategies, at least in the short-term, improved a woman’s acceptance and success (Martin, 2015). However, as business becomes more diverse and gender traits become somewhat more fluid, the benefits of diverse strengths and perspectives are often appreciated.
Unconscious and Conscious Bias
- Having Ideas Valued Less: Many women scientists still describe having their ideas more readily dismissed, not being taken seriously, and being talked over in meetings more often than men (Alda, 2021). In a research study of science faculty, two potential student lab employees were presented. Their descriptions were exactly the same, but their names differed, John and Jean. The results showed that the man was significantly more likely to be hired and likely to make more money (Moss-Racusin et al., 2012). Participants were also more likely to be willing to invest time in mentoring the male-named potential employee. Women participants in this research were biased as often as males.
- Being Judged Negatively for Showing Emotion: Women may be judged more negatively as leaders or entrepreneurs than men if they show their emotions. In one study, women who expressed anger, fear, or remorse were more likely to be viewed as ineffective leaders than men expressing the same emotions (Mullin, 2021).
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What are the barriers for women life scientists? Our 2019 focus group data
We asked four women life scientist entrepreneurs about the greatest barriers that women face when starting a business. These were the top barriers they described:
- Being unable to secure funding and more funding being needed for female-led businesses. One said that women are “often at a disadvantage when competing against male peers.”
- Not receiving validation or being seen as credible as a woman scientist who has the potential to succeed as an entrepreneur. Being discouraged from starting a business and encouraged to join existing corporations instead.
- Time/balancing priorities, not having a mentor.
Other surveys of women life scientists identified additional barriers to entrepreneurship:
- Low self-confidence in entrepreneurial abilities/low level of experience and skills in business (how to set up a business, hire the right people, know what money to take)
- Financial risk aversion
- Not the right time in their career, family, or financial situation
- Not being included in established networking organizations
- Lacking credentials that would impress investors, such as leadership positions
- Lacking interest in business