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The founders of Google, Genentech, Netscape, and Yahoo! have two things in common: All of them are university inventors whose companies grew out of the technologies they developed on campus. And all of them are male.
Male academics are much more likely than their female counterparts to start companies to exploit their inventions, studies show. That’s a problem, because if female academics aren’t building businesses based on their research, they aren’t benefiting from the rewards that high-growth, high-tech companies emerging from universities provide.
Why aren’t women starting university spinoffs at the same rate as men? Researchers have posited several explanations, including the relatively small number of senior female academics in science and engineering, greater exposure of male academics to the business community, less commercially relevant research by female professors, and greater personal and professional responsibilities for women academics.
While these factors may all play a role in explaining the paucity of spinoff companies founded by women, there’s another factor at play: The attitudes of technology licensing officers on university campuses.
To understand why their views matter, you need to know a little about how university technology transfer works. Universities own the rights to the inventions made by their faculty and staff members. To manage these inventions, most research universities have offices of technology transfer, which academics keep informed about any inventions they make. The technology transfer officers decide whether the inventions should be patented or not. And if they obtain patents on the inventions, the licensing officers figure out whether the inventions should be licensed to existing companies, as in the case of the sports drink Gatorade, or should be the basis of a new company, as in the case of the Google search algorithm.
This structure means that technology licensing officers are gate-keepers who influence which university inventions get patented, licensed, and become the basis for spinoff companies. If these professionals believe that the inventions of male academics are more appropriate for spinoffs than those of female academics, their views will contribute to the underrepresentation of women among spinoff company founders.
To figure out whether licensing officers favor the inventions of male inventors for spinoff companies, some colleagues and I conducted an experiment with 239 technology licensing officers at 88 leading research universities. We randomly assigned a male name and picture to an identical invention disclosure and inventor description to half of the sample and a female name and picture to the other half. Then we asked the technology licensing officers: “If the inventor wanted to start a company to commercialize this technology, how much would you try to dissuade the inventor?” (The scale ranged from one, meaning “not at all,” to five, meaning “as much as I could.”)
Even though the only difference between the two groups of invention disclosures was that one came from an inventor with a female name and picture and the other from an inventor with a male name and picture, the licensing officers were significantly more likely to report that they would dissuade the female inventor from starting a company.
Don’t think it’s just the male technology licensing officers who did this. The experiment showed that the results held for both male and female tech transfer officers.
Most of the licensing officers weren’t aware of their preferences, revealing a hidden bias. In fact, when we showed them the results, many of them were shocked.
But the finding isn’t that surprising. Elsewhere I wrote about an experiment demonstrating that randomly assigning a female name and picture to a company founder led subjects to offer less compensation.
Our experiment shows that one of the reasons why female academics are less likely to be founders of university spinoffs like Google and Genentech is that technology licensing officers are more likely to dissuade female inventors from becoming entrepreneurs. This finding means that universities will have to change the attitudes of technology licensing officers to increase the number of female founders of spinoff companies.