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Washington, DC – The Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), a leading think tank focused on improving the lives of and creating opportunities for women, released a new study today, which explores the unique difficulties women inventors—and particularly women inventors of color—face throughout the innovation and patenting process.

“It’s time to create opportunities for women inventors,” said C. Nicole Mason, PhD, President and CEO of IWPR. “Everyone will benefit from the inventions of women and from women of color, who bring new ideas to the table.”

“Interviewing the inventors in this report allowed us to identify some of those obstacles and recommend solutions,” said IWPR researcher Elyse Shaw. “By providing women and people of color with the resources they need to patent their inventions, companies, funders, and policymakers could actively expand the innovation space and help reach new heights of American ingenuity.”

The research indicates that the obstacles women face often stem from systemic barriers, such as the underrepresentation of women in STEM, expectations around household or caregiving duties and ongoing stereotypes, discrimination, and bias. The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has consistently found that women patent at significantly lower rates than their male peers. The most recent data found that only 22 percent of patents in the United States list a woman as one of the inventors; these numbers are even more dire for women inventors of color.

One Latina entrepreneur stated, “You don’t see people who look like us in leadership positions… Most of the inventors are White men who are engineers. So, when you don’t see people who look like you that are doing certain things, you just can’t picture yourself doing it.”

The study also found that women lacked access to formal education on the patenting process as well as mentors who could guide them. Positive mentorship experiences are a key factor in successful patenting but a lack of women in leadership positions in STEM and other patent-heavy fields makes it more difficult for women to rely on mentors. The study also found similar challenges across academic, corporate, and startup environments when it comes to access to professional networks and resources.

“We’ve had anecdotal evidence for a long time that women face unique barriers to patenting. But having detailed personal accounts of individual inventors adds critical information and context to recognize how extensive the problem is,” added Holly Fechner, Executive Director of Invent Together. “A better understanding of the experiences of women who pursue patenting will also help us design solutions to ensure women and other underrepresented groups in patenting today can reach their potential.”

The report concludes with recommendations about how to break down barriers that women confront in patenting:

  • Promoting early exposure to STEM for girls and young women from diverse backgrounds
  • Developing formal curricula on the patenting process
  • Tackling systemic racial and gender bias and discrimination
  • Investing in child care and work-life balance supports
  • Increasing support and funding for accelerator programs for women
  • Increasing access to quality patent attorneys
  • Increasing flexibility in government grant funding
  • Increasing funding for women, particularly women of color, for innovation and patenting

The report, funded by Qualcomm, Inc., provides an analysis of 21 in-depth interviews with inventors—16 women and 5 men—who spoke about their experience at every stage of the patenting process. Among the 16 women inventors, 11 were women of color. The inventors represented 14 different industries and were from 10 different states, with a wide range of experiences in academia, companies, and with entrepreneurial endeavors. The views and opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Qualcomm, Inc., or its affiliates.