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9 July 2018updated 14 Sep 2018 3:05pm

Why are only seven per cent of inventors women?

Women are dramatically underrepresented in patents. Are they no good at inventing things?   

By Augusta Riddy

Are you a fan of fire escapes? Stem cell isolation? A friendly game of Monopoly? Yes, you’ve guessed it: these inventions were all made and patented by women. In fact, the web is awash with feel-good lists of important inventions you should “thank” women for. The Hollywood starlet Hedy Lemarr was “not just a pretty face”, Scientific American reminds us; she was also a gifted inventor who paved the way for Wi-Fi.

Indeed, it is widely acknowledged by the internet that women are quite good at various things. Nevertheless, women only account for seven per cent of all inventors on patent applications in the UK. We shouldn’t feel too bad, though; in Germany it’s only five
per cent.

A patent is granted when an invention of economic value is deemed unique or unprecedented; the law then prevents anyone else from reproducing that invention, without a license, for a certain amount of time. Men dominate patent applications in Britain, making up 93 per cent of applicants. Patents form the legal basis that governs all technological progress. Why are women so underrepresented?

Penny Gilbert is a partner at Powell and Gilbert, one of Europe’s largest and most respected intellectual property law firms. For her, the main reason why women are not inventing as much is simple: “numbers”. “There’s no reason why women can’t file patent applications, but you’ve got to be in a position where you’re inventing. You don’t get into that until you’ve studied it.”

She believes the answer lies in the established question of girls’ interest in STEM subjects, and their ability to see a future for themselves within these sectors. “If you study engineering,” she says, “it tends to conjure up images of high-vis and hard hats and lots of men. Maybe we need to show better role models.” Gilbert points out that there tends to be a higher rate of female inventors in “gender-stereotypical” fields such as clothing, baking and domestic articles. In areas such as civil engineering and mechanical elements engineering, the numbers drops further to 3.9 per cent and 2.9 per cent respectively. As only 14 per cent of engineering graduates are women, “it’s not surprising” that they are particularly underrepresented in engineering applications, Gilbert argues, especially as not all graduates will remain in that line of work.

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But while it is well known that women are outnumbered in STEM, they still make up 13 per cent of the total workforce. The extent to which women are underrepresented in patents is therefore severe even by STEM industry standards. Patents can be filed by individuals, or by teams of people on behalf of a company or another individual. Only 3.9 per cent of all patent applications are filed by female individuals, compared to 50.8 per cent by male individuals. Teams are most likely to be entirely male; 37 per cent of patents are filed by teams that contain no women, while mixed teams of men and women account for just eight per cent. All-female teams are virtually non-existent, at 0.3 per cent of applications.

Researchers in the United States, where ten per cent of patent holders are women, have found that women who apply for patents are also less likely to be granted them. Kyle Jensen, Balazs Kovacs and Olav Sorenson of Yale School of Management recently authored a study into this disparity, entitled Why Do Women Inventors Win Fewer Patents? and made some unsettling discoveries. “We knew at the beginning of our study that women are underrepresented among inventors,” they explain, but “we didn’t know if women inventors and men inventors have the same kinds of success, or face different biases.”

The research team analysed the treatment of inventors by examining the “prosecution history” of millions of patent applications, and for each application they used census data to identify applicants as male or female by looking at their names. “This let us uncover the degree to which men have different outcomes than women in the patenting process.” They found that “a substantial, persistent disparity exists between the patent outcomes of men and women”.

The project found that applicants by female inventors with common names had an 8.2 per cent lower chance of success, compared to a 2.8 per cent lower chance of women with “rare names, where it would be tougher for an examiner to guess the applicant’s gender”. The researchers analysed patent applications by inventors with “rare names”, whose genders were not easily discernible, and through this were able to discover that “a substantial portion of the disparity appears to be explained by the way that patent applications by women are examined, as opposed to differences in the way that men and women write patent applications”.

But the disparity does not stop at the patent application stage, it continues even once the patents had been granted; patents registered under common female names were cited 30 per cent less frequently than those registered under common male names. When asked what most surprised them about the outcomes of their research, the group said it was the “diverse” ways in which women seemed to be penalised. “Not only are women inventors’ patent applications less likely to be granted, when they are granted, fewer of their patent claims – the legal rights inventors get – are granted, their claims tend to be weaker, and the patents are less likely to be cited by other inventors.”

“Our study is only able to say a little bit about why that disparity exists,” they explained, but the researchers did conclude that those reviewing applications should be “blind” to the name of the applicant, and therefore avoid any gendered assumptions.

It is possible that workplace discrimination could impact female inventors at the moment when their ideas have the potential to receive acknowledgement, and economic gain. Gilbert concedes that along with a lack of women working in STEM, other societal factors exist which continue to limit women. “There are some careers where it’s definitely going to be easier to fit in having children than others.”

The crucial question is: does it matter? As long as innovation keeps moving apace, then is this an issue? The Yale academics argue that it makes economic sense to “maximize the innovative potential for each would-be inventor”, an argument that could certainly be applied to the UK.

Gilbert believes that it is a problem, but primarily in the sense that options are being limited. “All girls should be able to choose whatever they want to do. [It’s] really important that girls and women shouldn’t feel that there are barriers to whatever career they want to pursue.”

Official figures state that seven per cent of people on patent applications in the UK are women, but, although it cannot be measured, the potential for women to invent things must be much higher.

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