A Gender Gap in Commercializing Scientific Discoveries

Diversity and inclusion in science and commercialization are integral to innovation, societal and economic growth. While progress has been made in increasing representation and inclusivity in STEM, there are complex factors at play that hinder a comprehensive understanding of the barriers faced by underrepresented groups in these fields. Today, I will focus on a challenging point later in the invention process: commercializing a scientific discovery. In a research study with Matt Marx, we characterize the gender dynamics of scientific commercialization in the full canon of scientific inquiry.

One of the highlights of our study is to show that, as a society, we have made lots of progress regarding gender balance in the early steps of the scientific production process. Analyzing 70 million scientific articles, we observe meaningful growth in female participation in scientific production. In 1980, barely one in five published papers included a female author. By 2020, that figure exceeded 50%. This increase represents a significant cultural shift in the scientific community. Diversity in science has been shown to stimulate innovation and promote higher recognition within the academic community. This is a win not just for the women involved but for the whole of society.

However, these gains for women early in scientific production hide potential pitfalls later. Namely, the key takeaway of our study is that a significant gender gap remains for commercializing scientific discoveries. Given that we find the gender gap in commercialization is the largest among discoveries that are more highly cited and with higher commercial potential, we title our study and refer to these uncommercialized discoveries as “Cassatts in the Attic” after the renowned female painter and printmaker Mary Cassatt.

What are the underlying reasons behind this gap? For instance, it could be that the investors financing early commercialization efforts are biased against women or that women have limited social networks to help move their scientific discovery to the next stage. While we explored several potential explanations, we found limited evidence that these supply-side factors alone could explain the gap. Instead, our findings indicate that the gender gap predominantly emerges in commercialization efforts conducted in collaboration with existing firms, pointing towards a potential bias from the firm side.

Now, let us consider the relevance of these findings to society.

At its core, the underrepresentation of women in the commercialization of scientific discoveries represents an enormous loss of potential. Women are leading innovative research projects, producing highly cited scientific papers, and making substantial contributions to the research community. Yet, their discoveries are often left “in the attic,” uncommercialized and underutilized, suggesting a possible waste of human and intellectual resources. These “Cassatts in the Attic,” represents missed opportunities to enhance societal welfare and economic prosperity.

This research also shows that the gender gap in commercialization is not just a women’s issue; it is an issue that affects all of us. In fact, it might stifle innovation, limit economic growth, and prevent society from fully benefiting from the contributions of half its population. So, it is essential to remember to promote inclusivity and diversity in all stages of the invention process and extend our efforts beyond the early stages of recruiting and training new STEM talent. We also must help those diverse voices in the critical process of commercializing scientific discoveries. This collective effort should involve all stakeholders, including government, firms, investors, universities, and scientists themselves.

Brilliant minds surround us from all types of backgrounds (gender, race, socio-demographic,…), possibly holding valuable insights that have the potential to shape our world. However, it is our responsibility to ensure that these ideas are not confined and hidden away but brought into the light where they can truly make a difference.

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