The Patent Gender Gap: Less than 20% of U.S. patents have at least one woman inventor

By Gene Quinn
August 1, 2016

Silhouette of a female researcher carrying out research in a chemistry labAlthough women have more than quintupled their representation among patent holders since 1977, a pronounced patent gender gap remains. In 2010, according to a new briefing paper by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), fewer than one in five patents had at least one woman inventor named. Although quintupling the number of women inventors over the last 30+ years is impressive, at the current growth rate it is projected that it will take until 2092 for women to reach parity in patenting.

There is a very real patent gender gap. The question is what, if anything, can be done to close the gap?

The IWPR briefing paper reports that women make up only 7.7 percent of primary inventors who hold patents. According to IWPR, those women who are the primary inventor tend to hold patents for inventions associated with traditional female roles, such as jewelry and apparel.

Closing the patent gender gap and increasing women’s patenting rate could (and should) also increase access to venture capital funding for women owned businesses. Venture capital investors consider patents in funding determinations, so with women receiving few patents it only stands to reason that women owned businesses would not do well in the VC marketplace. Indeed, while 36.3 percent of all businesses in the United States are women-owned, only three percent of venture capital funding went to businesses with a woman CEO between 2011 and 2013.

“Not only do women and people of color have unequal access to the economic rewards and fulfillment of STEM careers and inventing, but the nation is missing out on a huge swath of talent and innovation that could contribute to solving important social and scientific problems.” said IWPR Vice President and Executive Director Barbara Gault, Ph.D. “Supporting women inventors is a key element of a thriving innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystem in the United States.”

The STEM Dilemma

One of the main reasons why there is such a pronounced patent gender gap, with women having such a small share of the overall number of patents, is due to their significant under-representation in patent-intensive fields. For example, in 2010, only 19.1 percent of engineering degrees, 20.9 percent of computer science, and 38.7 percent of degrees in the physical sciences were awarded to women. Meanwhile, 58.3 percent of degrees in the biological sciences were held by women.

women-stem-degrees

Portion of STEM Degrees Received by Women, 1977-2010.

Unfortunately, the problem may not be so much with women as much as it is with young girls.  According to the Girl Scouts of America, girls start losing interest in math and science during middle school years. Young girls seem more interested in careers where they can help others, such as teaching, for example. The Girl Scouts also suspect that the “lack of interest may be a product of older stereotypes about girls doing poorly in math, or of low confidence in their abilities, or alternatively may reflect a general well-roundedness in girls that leads many to turn to their high verbal skills during career planning.”

Whatever the case may be, with the seeds of the problem planted in middle school the solution will be a harder one to tackle. Of course, this does not mean that the problem is not worth addressing, it just means that in order to have a long-term positive impact a big part of the solution will need to be to reach girls before middle school when they start to lose interest in math and science.

Conclusion

In order to close the patent gender gap it will be necessary to reach young girls before they choose a path away from science and math, whatever the reason may be. One way to reach children is with positive role models. With respect to encouraging more participation in STEM fields that means that there needs to be more successful female role models for girls to look up to and want to emulate. Thus, the solution to achieving parity, closing the patent gender gap and leveraging the untapped resource of female ingenuity cannot only focus on youth. The solution needs to address both ends of the lifecycle.

One easy recommendation proffered by IWPR, which could be nearly immediately implemented, is for the Patent Office to start collecting at least some basic demographic information about inventors. This can make it more difficult for researchers to obtain anything other than very broad, top-line information. Even then the data may not be foolproof given that researchers typically use name-matching software to identify gender, race and ethnicity. Getting better data will give us a better picture of what is happening and where to focus resources to tap into vast wells of undiscovered potential.

The Author

Gene Quinn

Gene Quinn is a Patent Attorney and Editor and founder of IPWatchdog.com. Gene is also a principal lecturer in the PLI Patent Bar Review Course and an attorney with Widerman Malek. Gene’s specialty is in the area of strategic patent consulting, patent application drafting and patent prosecution. He consults with attorneys facing peculiar procedural issues at the Patent Office, advises investors and executives on patent law changes and pending litigation matters, and works with start-up businesses throughout the United States and around the world, primarily dealing with software and computer related innovations. is admitted to practice law in New Hampshire, is a Registered Patent Attorney and is also admitted to practice before the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. CLICK HERE to send Gene a message.

Warning & Disclaimer: The pages, articles and comments on IPWatchdog.com do not constitute legal advice, nor do they create any attorney-client relationship. The articles published express the personal opinion and views of the author and should not be attributed to the author’s employer, clients or the sponsors of IPWatchdog.com. Read more.

Discuss this

There are currently 7 Comments comments.

  1. John August 1, 2016 11:27 am

    “women and people of color have unequal access to the economic rewards and fulfillment of STEM careers and inventing”

    This is nonsense. Women are strongly encouraged to enter STEM fields, and have just as much access to these fields as males. In fact it may be argued they have better access than males considering there are more female college grads than male.

  2. Michael J. Feigin, Esq. http://PatentLawNY.com August 1, 2016 4:12 pm

    A few comments…
    1) Why do women need to reach parity as inventors? Why can’t men and women be into different things, on average? Do we also need parity in pre-school teachers? Not going to happen, so you have a least some more women than men in fields that don’t involve patents.

    2) Who says it has to do with education? Plenty of stupid people file stupid patents all the time.

    3) Maybe it shows women are smarter sometimes. I’ve lost many a potential client to the awful phrase, “let me just ask my wife before I proceed.” I hate it when a potential client says that … if I can even say there was potential for him to be a client since he asks his wife for advice.

  3. Night Writer August 2, 2016 9:12 am

    Right now boys are going to college at what is getting close to half the rate as girls. No one seems to care. The studies indicate the problem is that girls are more suited to sitting there all day and boys need more frequent exercise breaks and more time to develop verbally.

    This is perhaps the biggest thing that has happened in education since I’ve been alive.

  4. Alex in Chicago August 2, 2016 2:34 pm

    This would be laughable if I didn’t know so many people earnestly believe its a problem.

    Do people just lose their minds anytime they see a statistic where men out-represent women? This “patent gap” is a science gap, which Gene points out starts during puberty, which means its a comparative advantage gap. Even if we assume men and women are equally as good at science and technology (Dubious Assumptions for $500 Alec), clearly they like it less, or find they have an advantage (aka being better compared to men) in a different field. Thus, encouraging more women to go into STEM is a Pareto negative.

  5. Michael J. Feigin, Esq., http://PatentLawNY.com August 2, 2016 3:00 pm

    Right on Alex. Equality means that everyone has equal opportunity to choose to do the same things. Oppression means you tell people they’re no good unless they’re acting like someone they’re not.

    Equality means women can choose careers in engineering or can choose to file patents. Oppression means telling them they have to when they’re not interested.

    Simpsons comes to mind…
    Lisa: “Yes, a girl can be on the football team!”
    Flanders: “Well, come on board, we already have three girls on the team and would be glad to have you.”
    Lisa: “Well, actually … you already have and football’s really not my thing…”

  6. Janet B August 3, 2016 12:00 am

    And why are all the comments thus far by men who appear to be threatened that women, given equal access, can compete? Data clearly show that when women are on the technical teams, the teams rise to the top competitors. So why should we ignore that data?

  7. JD - fedcirdamages.com August 13, 2016 12:44 am

    The problem is deeper than equality of opportunity.

    It has been ingrained into our heads for centuries that sciences and maths are for men, and not women. And from a young age, many women face biased teachers who reinforce (not on purpose) that viewpoint. If we want to get patent parity, we need to change the way society views gender and sciences.

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