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Lost Marie Curies & Hidden Figures: Unpacking the Story Behind the Lack of Women Inventors

Last month, we reported on the recent findings issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) about women inventors, which showed that women are named as the sole inventor on only 12% of patents, and as one of the inventors on 21% of patents. Given that women make up over 28% of scientists and engineers and receive 50% of the bachelor’s degrees and 39% of the PhDs in STEM fields, these statistics are troubling to say the least. In our article, we discussed the statistics in more detail, as well as some ideas based on the findings on how to address the problem, including providing better networks and funding for women inventors.

In the past month, the Intellectual Property subcommittees of both the US House of Representatives and Senate held hearings on March 27 and April 3, 2019, respectively, to discuss the report and ways of remedying the problem. At these hearings, eight individuals working in STEM fields shared their perspectives drawn from both research and personal experience. The women who testified included industry veterans from Qualcomm (Susie Armstrong, Senior Vice President of Engineering) and 3M (Sandra Nowak, Assistant Chief IP Counsel), who offered some effective strategies for addressing the issues, as well as researchers such as Professor Lisa D. Cook from Michigan State University and Dr. Barbara Gault, Executive Vice President of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, who offered additional data and insights.

In her opening remarks, Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), who had been an entrepreneur and small business owner, offered perhaps the most astute observation: why weren’t the hearings called the “Lost Marie Curies” instead of the “Lost Einsteins”? Sen. Blackburn’s remark highlights one of the problems clearly outlined in the reports and echoed by the testimony at both hearings – the need for women role models in STEM. 

Blackburn’s comment addresses the perception that women role models do not exist in STEM – and admittedly, they are far fewer than there should be. However, as was highlighted by several speakers and perhaps most eloquently by Dr. Patricia Bath, President of the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness (who holds five patents and was the first African-American woman doctor to receive a U.S. patent for a medical invention), the problem is not merely that these women do not exist, but that they are frequently overlooked and marginalized. As Dr. Bath explained, she experienced what she called her “Katherine Johnson moment”, which she goes on to describe in more detail: “In the movie Hidden Figures, we learned that frequently her name was deleted or restricted from appearing on scientific publications of her work [in the 1960s].” So too, did Dr. Bath see her work not receive proper credit into the late 1980s! She also discussed her own “Nettie Stevens moment” – referring to a scientist who actually “discovered chromosomal sex determination,” although a male scientist with whom she worked claimed credit for the discovery and has been recognized as discovering it by others. To professional women, whether in STEM or other fields, these kinds of “moments” are unfortunately neither unique nor surprising.

One underlying assumption in the USPTO report appears to be that women’s patenting rates are a proxy for their invention rates. That may be the case, or, as was reflected by some of the remarks, the issue may lie more in patenting itself. Dr. Bath highlighted the high cost of patenting and lack of resources for individual inventors pursuing patents. Dr. Ayanna Howard, Professor and Chair of the School of Interactive Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, also emphasized how having more information and resources about patenting (such as pro bono patent counsel) – and the financial wherewithal to invest in patents – would have impacted her choices and decisions around patenting: 

Is there anything that I can think of that would have possibly made this journey a bit easier earlier in my career? Or enhanced my positioning in terms of laying claim to my inventions and having a broader impact? As a young woman engineer, having a patent expert that was able to communicate its importance to young scientists and provide a hands-on curriculum for going through the process of the patent application would have been a start.

Certainly a lack of role models, knowledge, financing, and other support will make women inventors less likely to put their hat in the ring for patents. In this regard, Robin L. Rasor, Executive Director of the Office of Licensing & Ventures at Duke University cited at least one study showing that, in the academic world, men were 35-40% more likely to submit an invention disclosure. Michelle Lee, the former Under Secretary of Commerce for IP and Director of the USPTO, similarly testified based on her experiences as both a lawyer in private practice and in-house counsel that women were less likely to voluntarily submit invention disclosures. As she stated, “[i]n a number of instances, the women discounted the novelty and usefulness of their inventions and seemed less willing to dedicate the time to apply for a patent, viewing it more as an ‘extracurricular’ professional activity.” Thus, this barrier, combined with things like the reduced number of women in STEM generally, a lack of access to capital, and outright gender discrimination all contribute to the lower levels of patenting by women.

Several speakers underscored the loss to society as a whole from this trend. As Dr. Cook explained “[m]y and others research calculates that the size of the economy could be roughly 3 to 4 percent higher if women and underrepresented minorities were include in the innovative process from beginning to end.” And Ms. Nowak, of 3M, observed that “empirical studies have found that even though women patent less than men, the quality and impact of their patents are equal to or exceed those of men.” At a time when poor patent quality continues to be an issue – and moreover, there are many patents that I myself have seen that are not particularly useful, although valid – perhaps part of the issue is not that women aren’t patenting enough but that men need to patent less. While I say this somewhat in jest, I think there is a kernel of truth in it. As seen in a recent study of litigation success rates by Premonition AI, women have a higher success rate in litigation than men. One reason commentators offer for this result is that women are less likely to take lower quality cases and arguments to trial. Perhaps the same is true for patenting?

Lost Marie Curies & Hidden Figures