Patents: why are there so few women inventors?

Patent applications by female inventors are still too few and there lies an underexploited potential for innovation.

According to a recent study conducted by the United Kingdom Intellectual Property Office using Patstat, the international statistical database of patents of the European Patent Office and an analysis of the first names of inventors, women represent slightly less than 15% of patent applications globally. And although this percentage may be growing (6.8% in 1998, 12.7% in 2017), if nothing changes, gender equality won't be achieved before 2070!

Proportion of female inventors associated with patent applications worldwide, 1915-2017

This imbalance is clearly due to a lack of women working in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), an issue that has been identified for quite some time. Despite campaigns running more or less everywhere, too few women take up careers in these fields.

Analysts have also noted that, not only are women largely in the minority among inventors, but that this disparity is even more marked if we consider that the majority of female inventors are the only women working in a predominately male team.

More than two thirds of all patents come from teams entirely made up of men or from individual male inventors - and only 6% of individual female inventors. Entirely female teams represent just 0.3% of applications.

Worse still: according to Yale University, inventors whose name is clearly female are less likely to see their patent issued by USPTO!

The WIPO also confirms that female scientists are only half as likely to to obtain a patent for their research; the Office draws from this the (bizarre) conclusion that women are less likely than men to consider commercialising their inventions.

Biotechnologies boast the largest number of female inventors: 53% of patents within this field have at least one female inventor. This is also the case for 52% of pharmaceutical patents. By contrast, less than 10% of electrical engineering patents have at least one female inventor.

Inventor team constituency of patent applications by WIPO technology sector, 1998-2017

Russia stands out from among the 50 countries with the most patent applications filings: it boasts 17% of patent applications with at least one female inventor over the last 20 years.
Conversely, in Japan and South Korea, less than one application in 20 included a female inventor in the same period.

Proportion of female inventors for each of the top 50 countries, 1998-2017

In February 2019, the American Patent Office, USPTO also published a study into patent filings by female inventors. The conclusion is the same as the report by the UK Office: women still represent a small minority of patent inventors and this represents an underexploited potential for innovation.

Nevertheless, a certain level of progress can be noted: the proportion of patents that included at least one female inventor has gone from 7% in the 1980s to 21% in 2016, which corresponds to only 12% of all inventors.

Although women are increasingly active in scientific and technical professions and access entrepreneurship to an increasingly large extent, this percentage remains low. The figure is a little higher in the technology-focused United States.

Women inventors are concentrated in specific technologies rather than actively filing patents in fields dominated by men.

They are increasingly likely to file patents in large mixed gender teams, which highlights a growing need to understand the relationship between gender and collaborative innovation.

Sources

Also worth reading is a WIPO study, but which dates from 2016: https://www.wipo.int

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