MIT’s Bhatia Refocuses Spotlight on Gender Diversity in Biotech

Xconomy Boston — 

Sangeeta Bhatia has been talking about the woeful lack of diversity in the life sciences and other high-tech industries since the late 1980s, when she was an undergraduate studying biomedical engineering at Brown University.

She thinks the situation is improving, but not nearly fast enough.

“I think the statistics are all getting better. What I like to say is that I’m just impatient with the slope of the line,” Bhatia (pictured above, left) says. “I have two young girls. I want it to be better already.”

Bhatia—an MIT professor, medical doctor, biomedical engineer, and biotech entrepreneur—is an advocate for women in science and engineering, and her long list of achievements have given her a platform to make her voice heard. Among them: she has co-founded three companies; developed innovative technologies such as functioning miniature human livers created using computer chip manufacturing techniques; and won awards such as the Lemelson-MIT Prize.

Bhatia, the director of the 30-person Laboratory for Multiscale Regenerative Technologies at MIT, admits she sometimes feels uncomfortable in the limelight. “Science has a lot of mythmaking in it. The things that make me uncomfortable are that kind of mythmaking around a single person, because I actually really run a team.”

After some early publicity, she recalls saying to prolific biotech entrepreneur and MIT professor Bob Langer, “I just want to crawl under a rock. How do you do this?” He replied that it’s important for the public to read about science and engineering, and to understand what university researchers do, she says.

“The way I’ve gotten comfortable with it is to realize that it’s actually good for my trainees if I’m visible—to realize that it serves them to have people aware of the lab that they trained in,” Bhatia says. “And the other [way] is to try and make it so that the conversation serves this other goal, which I really care about, which is diversity.”

As the national conversation around diversity in high-tech industries has grown louder in the past couple of years, one thing Bhatia thinks hasn’t been discussed enough is why people should care.

“Of course, this is a matter of fairness and making the most out of our societal investments in education,” Bhatia says. “But if you also care about time-to-profitability and return on investment, it has been shown over and over again that [business] teams with women on them perform better. By a lot.”

There are a lot of ways to fail in biotech—a “risky, expensive, highly regulated business,” Bhatia says—so “success requires taking advantage of every possible creative solution.”

“Investing in diversity provides a tried and true competitive advantage that we simply can’t afford to leave on the table,” Bhatia says. “So, if I could change one thing about the current diversity discussion, it would be that having more diversity is good for the bottom line, not just a ‘nice to have.’”

The underrepresentation of women in high-tech industries—particularly in C-suites, board rooms, and venture capital offices—is not “just a pipeline issue, especially in the biological sciences, where there has been a robust talent pipeline for decades,” Bhatia says.

Unconscious biases and outright discrimination on the part of those doing the hiring or making investments play a role, Bhatia says. Another key contributor to the lack of gender parity—and a cause she says is not well understood—is when promising young women “opt out” of the industry or choose not to start companies.

There are a variety of factors that play into their decision. But Bhatia thinks she and her peers could help move the needle on gender diversity by more actively encouraging young women—particularly those at the PhD level—to become entrepreneurs.

“They’re at a really precarious age; they’re in their 20s, deciding what they want to do for the rest of their lives,” Bhatia says. “Virtually everyone I know that has achieved as a woman had someone at that critical time who said, ‘You can do this.’”

It sounds simple, but Bhatia thinks those conversations can make a huge difference—and they’re not happening often enough.

Bhatia says she is fortunate that she has had role models and supportive mentors throughout her life, beginning with … Next Page »

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