Sangeeta Bhatia, a superstar of engineering and medicine, was working on a new biotechnology start-up company when she got a piece of friendly advice from an investor who had backed her previous company.

He said Bhatia, a tenured Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor, should bring along a male graduate student when she pitched the idea to venture capitalists. Sinking millions of dollars into a new idea that could transform medicine was a very personal decision, and he said it was important the investors feel comfortable, she recalled.

“As you talk to [female] colleagues in the world, they all kind of nod their head. ‘I’ve been told that,’” Bhatia said. “It’s sort of like: Note to self.”

Women have made significant gains in the sciences during the past few decades, but men continue to dominate leadership of the biotech industry — where science and business collide to turn ivory tower insights into medicines and biomedical technologies that can change the world. It’s a disparity hidden in plain sight, from the predominantly male chief executives of biotech companies to, as Bloomberg News reported, a party at the biggest dealmaking event of the year that featured models in tiny dresses as cocktail waitresses.

Bhatia, a successful serial entrepreneur, teamed up with Susan Hockfield, a former MIT president, and Nancy Hopkins, a biologist who uncovered systemic discrimination against women at MIT in the 1990s, to quantify the problem and push for change.

What they found was sobering: 40 missing companies.

Based on data from MIT alone, the trio found that fewer than 10 percent of 250 start-ups by MIT faculty were founded by women, despite the fact they made up 22 percent of the faculty. If men and women started companies at the same rate, they estimated there would be about 40 biotech start-ups that don’t exist today. A separate study found 11 percent of start-ups spun out of Stanford University had a female founder, while 25 percent of faculty members are women.

In response, Boston’s venture capital community has begun circulating and signing a pledge that at least a quarter of its companies’ boards of directors will be women within two years.

“It’s hard, if your eyes are open, to not see that it’s a problem,” said Stephen Knight, managing partner of F-Prime Capital, the venture arm of Fidelity Investments. Half of his firm’s portfolio of biotech companies have at least one female board member, and 10 percent of its companies’ chief executives are women.

“We’ve come a long way in developing new medicines for devastating diseases. I am fairly sure that increasing diversity, including women, we will develop a lot more,” Knight added. “For both fairness and for the sake of patients, it’s our responsibility to increase diversity.”

A list of 100 companies

Hopkins, an accomplished researcher who built her career studying cancer biology and zebrafish genetics, became a hero to many female scientists with a side project she started in the 1990s. After her requests for additional laboratory space kept getting denied, she went around MIT with a tape measure and a notebook. She found her male peers had labs up to four times as big as hers, demonstrating how a data-driven approach to documenting inequities could help build the case for change.

Hopkins went on to help lead a report that further quantified inequities, pushing MIT to make the unusual admission that there had been long-standing discrimination against female professors. Under pressure, things began to change and other universities began to do similar evaluations.

When Hopkins was retiring in 2012, a colleague showed her a list of 100 companies receiving venture funding in Boston. There was a lone female founder on the list. Hopkins wanted to celebrate the advances she had seen during her academic research career. But biotech had flourished during that time and was becoming a key pipeline for new drugs and an essential bridge between the academic laboratory and the real world. The list showed how much work remained to be done.

“We saw the changes in the university … but it’s another frontier that didn’t move along quite in step with the universities,” Hopkins said.

When Hopkins won a lifetime achievement award from Xconomy, a publication focused on biotech, Bhatia introduced her during an awards ceremony. Hockfield, no longer MIT’s president but a professor of neuroscience, was in the audience. Hopkins once again brought up the list. It was surprising to Bhatia, who had started companies herself and knew other women who had, too. The trio decided they had to start by quantifying the problem.

“We were roughly aware, without data, that women were not participating at the rate that men were, and that, to us, represents a missed opportunity,” Hockfield said.

Using data from MIT’s technology licensing office, they explored a tantalizing alternate reality: What if the current female faculty created companies at the same rate as their male colleagues?

“We’ve been talking about the 40 companies that haven’t happened because women haven’t had the opportunity,” said Maria Zuber, vice president of research at MIT. “If a number of those 40 companies had come to pass, people would have treatments today that they don’t have.”

Solving the problem

A steady stream of studies, opinion pieces and news stories document gender gaps that persist despite efforts to close them. Bhatia, Hockfield and Hopkins were determined their work wouldn’t simply illustrate the problem. They convened a Boston biotech working group — including the investor community and university leaders — to make sure something changed.

“I wasn’t surprised by the findings, but I was galvanized by how practical and motivated they were to move towards action,” said Amy Schulman, a managing partner at Polaris Partners, a venture capital firm. “There was this fantasy that we’re neutral; because we’re science-driven, we’re gender blind and race blind.”

Schulman and Knight have been circulating the pledge to colleagues and say the reception has generally been positive.

The moment may be right — a push for diversity is gaining steam in the business world. Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon this month announced his bank would not take companies public in the United States and Europe if they did not have at least one person on the board of directors from an underrepresented group.

Schulman said the barriers to women may stem from inadvertent bias, such as prerequisites that turn out to be a proxy for picking a man. For example, if experience as a chief executive and prior experience on a company board is a requirement for a new leadership position, many women would find themselves excluded. Overt sexism may also play a role, including concerns about how public markets or investors will react to first-time female chief executives. Schulman emphasized is a concern she has heard, not one she holds.

One study, “We Ask Men to Win and Women Not to Lose: Closing the Gender Gap in Startup Funding,” found biases may even be woven into how business pitches are received. Investors tended to ask male entrepreneurs promotion-focused questions, about the opportunities for their businesses, while female entrepreneurs were asked prevention-focused questions, about the risks of failure. Another study found the same pitch presented by a man was rated more favorably than when it was given by a woman.

To increase opportunities, Harvey Lodish, an MIT professor who has been involved in biotech for 40 years, will teach an accelerator class with Bhatia for female faculty who are interested in learning about how to get involved — based on the idea that a major impediment is the lack of networking opportunities and exposure to biotech.

“It’s much more of an old boys’ network,” Lodish said, rather than overt sexism. “That is, you just didn’t think about it. You asked people that you knew to join [a company]. They tended to be people you worked with, and they tended to look like you.”

MIT is working to create a fellowship that would offer tenured female faculty leave for a semester to gain experience working at a venture capital firm. The group hopes other universities and investors will follow.

“The 40 missing companies represent 40 missing chances for fundamental discoveries to have been taken out into the world,” Bhatia said. “When one multiplies that by all the other innovation ecosystems in the country and the world, over many years, that represents a large missed opportunity for jobs, regional ecosystems, patients and society.”

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