Why are there so few female-led STEM businesses? Hint: It's not a pipeline problem

Women occupy too few leadership positions among STEM businesses, including healthcare companies,  but it's not a pipeline problem, according to new report from the Association for Women in Science. 

Instead, the report says, there are systemic issues in the science and tech world—including the programs meant to help early-stage entrepreneurs and foster venture capital investments—making it harder for women to rise to the top.

"We are still lacking in businesses led by women. It's even worse for women of color," said Bahija Jallal, Ph.D., Association for Women in Science National Governing Board president, about the innovation landscape. 

Bahija Jallal of AstraZeneca

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Less than 4% of venture capital is awarded to women-led businesses and less than 1% is awarded to women of color, the report points out. Of 225 biotech companies that have had IPOs in the past four years, 17 were led by women. 

The report comes in the midst of a national conversation about women in the workplace. This lack of women in STEM leadership came into stark focus when STAT reported earlier this year that the number of male speakers at the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference outnumbered the total number of female CEO speakers. They further reported on the specific challenges female entrepreneurs faced while trying to secure investments at the conference.

The problem often starts with the very programs meant to help startups, the report says. 

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Entrepreneurship programs and investors often attribute low enrollment of female founders to a "pipeline" problem, but data shows there are plenty of women who are capable, according to the report, which examined AWIS' STEM to Market Program in a study funded by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

"If you're not in the business of keeping track of this pipeline of women, it's easy to make an offhand remark that there aren't enough out there," said Melinda Richter, the global head of Johnson & Johnson Innovation, JLABS. "We've shown there are plenty of women out there but they are not recognized."

Bootcamps, which often have inflexible time commitments and are meant to weed people out, often cut women out because more outside responsibilities traditionally fall on their shoulders. Investor groups often follow patterns and invest based on a gut feeling, which is often based on a level of comfort or familiarity.

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Jallal, who is the president at MedImmune and executive vice president for pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca, said she knows firsthand that there is plenty of female talent being trained in STEM fields.

"If you look at the number of women in college, we're almost at 50/50," Jallal said. "When you look in companies, as in academia, you don't have a problem at the start. But as you get higher and higher, that's where the issues happen."

Often that happens because of unconscious bias, Richter said. "We have to create systemic change throughout the value chain of getting innovation to the market," she said.

At the JLABs incubator program, for example, nearly a quarter of its CEOs are female compared to the industry standard of less than 1% because it measures whether its programs are successfully supporting female leaders, Richter said. They also work to ensure at least 1/3 of speakers and mentors in its education programs are women and that stories of success also include women to help model what female participants can also achieve, Richter said.

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Data shows this is crucial for improving the business of innovation.

"If we look at the patient population around the world, we have a very diverse representation of different ethnicities," Richter said. "And if we don't have innovators that represent that patient population, the best solutions won't make it to that patient population. It's in our best interest to make sure we're cultivating innovation from different voices."