Equity in Innovation: Women Inventors and Patents

Jessica Milli, Ph.D., Emma Williams-Baron, Meika Berlan, Jenny Xia, Barbara Gault, Ph.D.

December 1, 2016
  • ID: IWPR #C448

This report compiles existing data on women and patenting. It explores both women’s underrepresentation among patent holders and their relative success in being granted patents when they apply for them. The report identifies the technology classes that women are most likely to patent in, and examines the overall success of patents granted to women as measured by their assignment rates and citation counts. The report draws on the social science literature to identify major obstacles that women face to patenting and, based on the research findings, presents several recommendations to help to close the gender patenting gap. This report was funded by Qualcomm, Inc.

 

Introduction

 

Throughout history innovation has played a critical role in advancing both economies and societies by allowing people to address new and changing problems that emerge in the world. At its core, innovation is the powerful demonstration of problem-solving, which allows society to flourish. Innovation generates new knowledge and tools that foster economic growth and development, propel society forward, and improve the quality of life. Modern civilization innovates to advance the needs of all people and drive economic development in a sustainable and purposeful way.

 

Humankind faces innumerable challenges that in the years ahead will require the brainpower of top minds around the world—global climate change, food insecurity, disease outbreaks, cyber security, slow economic growth, and much more. The interdependent nature of the global community means that these issues affect individuals across different populations and borders, but the way in which each person experiences these problems can be different. These different experiences highlight the importance of multidimensional approaches to problem solving. Diversity in innovation ensures that a multifaceted lens is applied to the examination of public problems, leading to a more rigorous and productive problem-solving process. Yet, there is a significant lack of diversity at all levels of the innovation process.

 

William Wulf, former president of the National Academy of Engineering, notes that “At a fundamental level, men, women, ethnic minorities, racial minorities, and people with handicaps, experience the world differently. Those differences in experience are the ‘gene pool’ from which creativity springs” (Wulf 1998). Yet, the diversity of the inventors creating the technologies that help to advance society, does not match the diversity of the societies those technologies should benefit. When significant portions of the population are not represented in the innovative process, social and economic progress suffers. The exclusion of women, people of color, and members of other disadvantaged groups from invention, patenting, and entrepreneurship leaves a vast reserve of untapped potential that could be harnessed to help find solutions to the pressing issues of the day.

 

Although innovative activity is difficult to measure, one way of examining it is through patenting behavior. Patents serve several different purposes. They facilitate the production and mainstreaming of new products and technologies. Patents protect innovations and grant to individuals and companies ownership rights over their research, which can also motivate companies or researchers to innovate. The record keeping of patents also creates an extensive database that documents scientific research and discovery over time and across place by different people. There is some debate over the merits of the patent system, with some arguing that there are numerous benefits to the system. For the individual, patents can bring financial rewards, peer and professional recognition, promotion opportunities, and additional opportunities for collaboration. Some firms even require patenting for career advancement and bonuses, and academic institutions have started to include patenting in promotion and tenure decisions (Stevens, Johnson, and Sanberg 2011; Association of Public & Land-Grant Universities 2015; Rosser 2009). A larger patent stock has also been linked to stronger economic growth (Blind and Jungmittag 2008; Rothwell et al.2013). On the other hand, patents can result in reduced competition in the market by preventing other firms from replicating the product or process, which can result in fewer options for consumers and higher prices.

 

This report focuses specifically on women’s patenting activity. Ever since Mary Kies became the first woman to be granted a United States patent in 1809 (Blakemore 2016), more and more women have sought (and been granted) patents. In fact, many important and well-recognized inventions were created by women. Josephine Cochrane, for example, invented the first working dishwasher and received a patent for it in 1886. Mary Anderson received a patent for developing the first windshield wiper and received a patent for it in 1903. And in 1964, Stephanie Kwolek first developed Kevlar (Edmonds 2011). In spite of the many notable examples of such famous female inventors, women make up only a small portion of all patent holders in the United States, indicating that they continue to face obstacles to patenting.

 

To present a clear picture of women’s experience in the patenting system, this report compiles existing data on women’s patenting behavior. How many patents have female inventors listed on them? What types of technologies do women patent? How successful are women who apply for patents in getting them granted? The report highlights the fact that women are dramatically underrepresented among patent holders, yet mixed-sex inventing teams tend to produce better results than men- or women-only teams. Thus, increasing diversity and promoting women’s more active participation in commercial science could produce even more effective technologies in the future.

 

This report also reviews the literature exploring the reasons for women’s underrepresentation in patenting. One of the primary explanations that has been put forward is that patenting is prevalent in STEM fields and women are also underrepresented in STEM fields. While the literature does indicate that women’s underrepresentation in STEM plays a small role in their relatively lower patenting activity, research shows that women’s underrepresentation in key patent-intensive STEM fields, such as engineering, explains more of the patenting gap than women’s underrepresentation in STEM fields in general, though it is still only part of the story. The patenting process can also be difficult and costly to navigate and many women have narrower networks and fewer resources on average than men to draw on. Further, the workplace environments of women scientists themselves pose obstacles, as does their greater share of family work. Sexism and gender discrimination in the workplace, particularly in STEM fields, along with a lack of family friendly workplace policies contribute to high rates of women leaving STEM occupations, and fewer opportunities for collaboration. The report closes with recommendations for steps that policymakers can take to begin to close the patenting gap and directions for future research.

 

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