Since March is Women’s History Month, it seemed fitting to review and discuss the recent report on the status of women patent inventors over the past forty years, which was released by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”). The USPTO’s research on the lack of women who are granted patents, “highlights the untapped potential of women to spur U.S. innovation”. The report notes that, “Women, like other under-represented groups, are among the ‘lost Einsteins’—people who may contribute valuable inventions had they been exposed to innovation and had greater access to the patent system.” Like in so many other fields, women in STEM do not yet have the opportunity to reveal their full potential and are a hugely underutilized resource for innovation. Here’s a synopsis of the study and some observations on ways to combat this systemic issue.
“Innovation” and “disruption” have become the terms du jour in the start-up world as entrepreneurs strive to build the next ubiquitous invention à la Apple, Facebook or Uber. Unfortunately, one common factor among many of these advances is who is behind them – men, and largely, white men. Last month, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”), released a report on the status of women patent inventors over the past forty years, and the results were disheartening, albeit not surprising.
Although, there has been an increase in the percentage of patents with at least one women inventor credited, the numbers are still abysmal (7% in the 1980s vs. 21% in 2016). Further, when patent inventors are examined in the aggregate, women made up only 12% in 2016 – only 2% higher than the percentage of women patent inventors in 2000 (over 15 years later). The discrepancy between women’s share of patenting and the percentage of women patent inventors is due to the fact that most of the growth for women inventors has been from patent inventor teams that are mixed-gender as opposed to all female teams or solo women. Therefore, the slow progress being made for women inventors is happening mainly through male-dominated patent teams.
Of course, the patterns within the patent landscape are not happening in a vacuum. With the rise of digital technology occurring in tandem with these data, there’s been an increased focus on the lack of women and minorities in this booming industry. Despite a large push to advocate for women in STEM-related fields and to dismantle the explicit and implicit bias that is pervasive in these male-dominated areas, women still lag far behind in most science and engineering careers. In particular, the percentage of women in engineering mirrors the low women inventor rate of 12%. This dearth of women in STEM has a domino effect on inventing, as the areas of science and engineering produce the most patentable inventions, according to the USPTO report.
The absence of women in inventor fields has been attributed to an array of factors, but among them is exposure to innovation during childhood, either through one’s family or community. This innovation-exposure hypothesis is corroborated through the USPTO’s investigation into the distribution of women inventors by state. Their research found that the rates of women inventors are highest in states like Delaware, New Jersey, New York and California, where industries such as pharma, biotech, electronics and social media are prevalent, and hence early exposure to these areas is more likely. Even beyond that, inventors tend to congregate in the specific patent categories in which they have been exposed, with women being significantly more likely to patent in a specific class if they are surrounded by other women who were granted a patent in that same class. Unsurprisingly, women are following in the footsteps of other women, rather than entering areas that are more male dominated and unchartered.
While a pipeline deficiency is one element impacting the number of women inventors who are granted patents, the current culture within these industries is another. The USPTO reports that, “female scientists face more difficulty securing funding and lack social networks that can be critical to patenting and commercializing innovations.” Therefore, the challenges that female inventors face in getting patents is also tied to the lack of resources and connections in their areas of focus. For example, even though private businesses are assigned the majority of patents in the US, women inventors are more likely to be granted a patent through universities, hospitals and public research organizations as they are offered greater opportunity in those environments. Further, among the top patent assignees, women inventors have the strongest foothold at institutions like chemical and pharm companies, as opposed to those that focus on electrical and chemical engineering technology where women are largely absent. Again, women inventors are more likely to cluster in industries where other women are currently represented or have been before.
While the USPTO’s report paints a bleak picture of the landscape for women inventors, it also presents an opportunity for improvement. If women inventors are able to gain footing in patent areas where 1) there are other women and 2) they are working collaboratively, then building structures that support these trends is critical. Establishing and growing networks of women inventors and trailblazers in these patent areas from a communal, educational and financial perspective is of upmost importance, especially since women have been shown to benefit from an inner circle of close female contacts in addition to a broad network. There are various national initiatives that are working to address the networking and fundraising needs of women entrepreneurs, including the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO), Women Presidents’ Organization (WPO), Ellevate, Golden Seeds, and the Tory Burch Foundation, among numerous others. With those efforts, we can begin to move the needle on gender parity in patents and reap the benefits of women inventors’ untapped potential.
This article was co-authored by Emily Griesing, Chief Strategy Officer at Bossible.