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Closing the High-Tech Gender Gap

This year’s Lemelson-MIT Prize winner discusses grassroots ways for boosting the number of women in technology and business.

I have a confession to make: I’ve been living under a rock.

I’ve actually been busy under here — running a bioengineering lab at MIT, starting companies, teaching, consulting, being a mom. But I’ve been so focused on keeping all the balls in the air that, until recently, I hadn’t noticed that women typically aren’t the ones starting technology companies.

To be fair, I had recognized that:

  • Girls choose engineering less often and drop out of engineering disproportionately (the so-called “leaky pipeline”).
  • The percentage of women computer science majors peaked 30 years ago.
  • The higher I climb, the fewer other women there are at the table with me.

I’ve also seen progress in gender equity in higher education. I just didn’t realize until recently that the technology industry is light years behind.

In case you’ve also been under a rock, here are some numbers that I found truly astonishing. Women lead only 3 percent of tech startups, account for only 4 percent of the senior venture partners funding such startups and represent only 5 percent of the founders, advisors and directors at MIT technology spinoffs.

Are you as shocked as I was? What if I tell you that more than 50 percent of students in some MIT undergraduate science majors are women — and that’s been the case for almost 20 years? Where do these talented women go, and what are the implications of that drain?

If we believe that entrepreneurship is a fundamental engine of progress, that it is a path to getting ideas into the world, then what does it mean for our society if the ideas that germinate in the minds of all those young women rarely turn into companies with products? (By the way, women-led private tech companies have 12 percent higher revenue and 35 percent higher return on investment than those led by men, according to the Kauffman Foundation. This shouldn’t have to be true to make us care, but it actually is.)

Sangeeta N. Bhatia, an MIT researcher and professor, is the recipient of the 2014 Lemelson-MIT Prize.

The Lemelson-MIT Prize is an award for invention, for making discoveries useful through commercialization, and for inspiring the next generation. As the 2014 recipient, I am truly honored and grateful to the many people who have contributed to our collective track record using miniaturization tools to impact human health.

Here are three things that made a difference for me:

Great expectations: My biggest fan and mentor has always been my dad, himself a serial entrepreneur. When I became a professor, he had mixed feelings about me climbing the ivory tower. To encourage me, he asked one simple question: “When will you start your first company?”  (As it turned out, I started my first company within five years. Since then, my students and I have founded 10 companies between us.)

Microclimate: Many have noted the chilly climate for women in engineering. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky. Of my college tribe of girlfriends, four of us are now successful entrepreneurs. My best friend is among that 4 percent of women venture capitalists; in fact, she was named one of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women. I’m fortunate to work alongside female founder colleagues, MIT’s Technology Licensing Office, and the ever-inspirational Professor Robert Langer. Indeed, my microclimate is actually pretty warm.

Men who believed in me: Much has been written about visible role models for women. I try to be one, even when it’s hard to put myself “out there.” Along the same lines, I appreciate having had a working mom who was a trailblazer, having been one of the first women in India to receive an MBA. However, it’s worth noting that the people in my life who have seen more for me than I saw for myself, who believed in me and promoted me, were mostly men, including my graduate advisor, my first investor, and my husband. The truth is that changing the face of technology requires the involvement of men who care about it.

I will donate some of the prize money to the MIT Society of Women Engineers. This organization runs fabulous outreach programs designed to keep young girls interested in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math). I also look forward to supporting a program for women’s entrepreneurship in MIT’s upcoming Innovation Initiative.

I hope other institutions will follow suit and such initiatives spread as quickly and far as the ideas set forth in the gender equity report championed by MIT’s beloved former president Charles Vest. I encourage you to also do your part: If you believe strongly in a talented woman you know, why not ask her when she will be starting her first company? It could be just the kind of great expectation that makes a real difference.

Sangeeta N. Bhatia, M.D., Ph.D., is director of the Laboratory Multiscale Regenerative Technologies and the John J. and Dorothy Wilson Professor of Health Sciences and Technology and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT. She is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator.

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