Unless women are somehow only 25 percent as creative as men these days, we have a big problem with our so-called “innovation age.” In one clear measure of who takes the credit for scientific inventions, male inventors dominate about four in five patents originating in the United States.
Granted, the gender gap in American inventorship has narrowed slowly over time. Over the past 40 years, the presence of women among teams of successful patent creators has ticked up steadily, according to an analysis by the Institute for Women’s Policy and Research (IWPR) (supported with funding from Qualcomm). From 1977 to 2010, the share of patents originated by women inventors has quintupled; nonetheless, in 2010, just “fewer than 20 percent of all patents had at least one woman inventor.” This male dominance, of course, reflects patterns in other elite sectors, like corporate management and higher education. But when innovation is the product, that has implications for who gets to set priorities in what we research and create to improve society in critical fields like medicine and information technology.
At this rate, women will have to work for another 60 years before seeing gender parity in patenting. In groups of inventors, patents in which women were the “primary inventors,” rather than supporting members of a team, made up just 8 percent of patents.
A separate study by the National Center for Women and Technology similarly showed women acting as primary inventors in just 7 percent of all information technology-related patents registered between 2006 and 2010. But there has been improvement over the past generation: While women “held only 2 percent of all IT patents in 1980, their share increased to approximately 6 percent in 2005 and 8 percent in 2010.”
The IWPR analysis also showed that teams of multiple inventors for a single patent likewise tended to skew male, leaving women in the minority all around. The tiny sliver of patents claimed by female primary inventors are also “concentrated in patent technologies associated with traditional female roles, such as jewelry and apparel.” However, patents involving women as one of multiple inventors were more diverse, with more representation of women as supporting inventors in fields like radiation imagery and microbiology. This suggests that women are making an impact as inventors in traditionally “male” fields, but for some reason, women are not getting credit as the main innovators behind patents.
The patent gap also reflects gender gaps in science and tech (STEM) education—a structural bias commonly attributed to cultural factors as well as institutional discrimination. But since inventors represent the cutting edge of economic and academic advancements, women’s severe under-representation in patents speaks to more complex social processes, explains IWPR Study Director Jessica Milli: