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The gender gap in biotech

In the late 1990s, when Vicki Sato was working as chief scientific officer of Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc., the Cambridge firm had a Secret Santa gift-giving tradition. Sato’s present was a painted nutcracker like the one in the ballet. It came with a bag of nuts, and a note: ‘‘Bust these, not mine.’’

The upper echelons of biotech are still a man’s world, where men make most of the decisions and set the tone. Yet Sato, who says she took no offense at the joke, argues that it is a world in which women can prosper.

Sato, now a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School, is not alone in her optimism. A small group of scholars studying women in biotech has stumbled on a surprise. While the industry is dominated by men in many aspects, particularly in its corporate leadership, by some objective measures — such as patenting, or likelihood to lead projects — women are actually doing better in biotech than at universities. One reason, scholars suggest, is the more fluid approach to science favored in the business world.

‘‘If you are working with a chauvinist, then you just don’t work with them on the next project,’’ said Laurel Smith-Doerr, an assistant professor of sociology at Boston University and one of the researchers doing the studies.

Biotechs have a different organization than academia, a ‘‘network organization,’’ Smith-Doerr said, where scientists cooperate across organizational boundaries within a company and also form partnerships with other companies and academic labs. That contrasts with the academic world, where the head of a laboratory, the ‘‘principal investigator,’’ is king (or, less often, queen), and roads lead through them.

One study in the journal Science examined patenting in the academic world, and found a striking disparity. Even controlling for other factors, such as number of research articles published, a female faculty member is only about 40 percent as likely to have any patents as a male colleague. (The study, published in August, found that the gap is closing among younger faculty, albeit slowly.)

But new, unpublished research by sociologist Kjersten Bunker Whittington at Stanford University adds a fascinating twist: In biotechnology, the gender gap vanishes. Women in biotech firms are just as likely to have filed for a patent as men. The reason isn’t the mere fact of working in a commercial setting, where patents are more valued, Whittington said. When she looked at pharmaceutical companies, where, she said, a more hierarchical organization holds sway, the patenting figures were comparable to academia.

Whittington has also done an analysis of patenting in the Boston area, including in the commercial and academic spheres. She assembled a network in which people are linked to everyone with whom they have written a patent. The result was a diagram that looks like a map of US airport connections. She analyzed how central a role each person played in the network, with ‘‘central’’ meaning having a lot of connections to others who also have many connections. She found a gender gap in academia — women are pushed to the periphery — but a narrower one in biotech.

Woman do not think they do better in the biotech business environment because they are better at collaboration, according to Smith-Doerr. Instead, she said, women cited three factors. First is flexibility in whom to work with. Second is better transparency: People work on many teams, cooperating with other departments, and even other companies and academics, so everyone has a better sense for who is talented. Finally, biotech firms work in an environment of ‘‘collective rewards’’ — if the product succeeds, then everyone wins — while academic institutions are more focused on individuals.

Nonetheless, the people running biotech companies are almost all men. Toby Stuart, a Harvard Business School professor, has assembled data on all biotechs with venture funding since 2001 and found that only 5 percent had a female chief executive. And other research he has conducted shows women still constitute fewer than 10 percent of scientific advisory board members.

Sato, who is also a professor in Harvard’s department of molecular and cellular biology, said she still sometimes finds herself the only woman sitting on a scientific advisory board. But that’s changing, she said, and she is sure there are more changes to come.

‘‘I am a cup-is-half-full kind of person,’’ Sato said.

Gareth Cook can be reached at