Women remain dramatically underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. Even in 2017, some claim that “biological causes” account for the disparity—witness the recent uproar over a Google engineer’s controversial internal memo is long on stereotype, but short on evidence. IWPR’s research reveals that such stereotypes may contribute to the profound disparity in women’s STEM participation. A recent IWPR report on women’s patenting activity illustrates the problem. Seeking a patent, which is most prevalent in STEM-intensive fields, is one form of innovative behavior. However, in 2010, only 18.8 percent of patents granted in the United States named one or more women as members of the invention team. These data are particularly disturbing given that mixed-sex inventing teams tend to produce better results than single-sex teams. According to the report, higher-quality research and innovation may flow from the gender diversity itself and/or the larger size of mixed-gender teams compared to single-sex work-groups. Either way, women’s underrepresentation among inventors seems to inhibit innovation.
The report documents that increasing women’s participation in patenting could lead to a number of important societal benefits:
- The total number of patents awarded would significantly increase, boosting productivity in the economy as a whole.
- Women-owned businesses would become more competitive, as crucial start-up capital tends to flow to firms that apply for patents.
- The value of patent-holding firms might rise substantially, as higher-quality patents are linked to increases in companies’ market value.
Improving women’s access to STEM fields may help narrow both the patenting gap and the wage gap. IWPR research has found that women are most likely to work in STEM occupations in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Massachusetts, which are also the three states with the highest median annual earnings for women. Yet, while the median annual earnings for women are $64,000 in STEM fields, women are only 28.8 percent of workers in those fields.
Unfortunately, the gap seems unlikely to narrow any time soon. The share of STEM degrees awarded to women increased from 20.2 percent in 1977 to 33.9 percent in 2000, but has since not budged (at 33.5 percent in 2010). Women are still underrepresented in patent-intensive STEM fields. In 2010, fewer than one in five engineering degree-holders was a woman. In computer science, women are actually falling further behind. In 1980 women held roughly 35 percent of computer science degrees; by 2010, women had just 21 percent of the degrees in that field. Even when women do obtain STEM degrees, they are underrepresented in research and development, the most patent-intensive job tasks. For example, among those in nonacademic careers, 61 percent of men but only 46 percent of women with STEM doctoral degrees work in development and design.
IWPR’s reports cite research finding that gender stereotypes—not “biological causes”—may contribute to disparities in patenting activity. As one such study notes, perceptions that women are more interested in “socially-oriented work” than in engineering or software development may become self-fulfilling prophecies, as women may feel frustrated when they are disrespected in technological departments and ultimately leave them for more accepting environments. Instead of repeating clichés—for example, that women show “more openness to feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas,”—IWPR identifies the real-world factors that cause gender disparities in STEM participation.
Read the full report, Equity in Innovation: Women Inventors and Patents.