Why Aren’t There More Female Patent-Holders?

(Photo: Michael Neubert)

We’ve blogged before about gender inequality and the persistent male/female wage gap.  A new working paper by Jennifer Hunt, Jean-Philippe Garant, Hannah Herman, and David J. Munroe highlights another arena where women are lagging: commercialized patents. Only 7.5 percent of regular patent and 5.5 percent of commercial patent holders are female.  The authors explored various explanations for the gap:

Using the National Survey of College Graduates 2003, we find only 7% of the gap is accounted for by women’s lower probability of holding any science or engineering degree, because women with such a degree are scarcely more likely to patent than women without. Differences among those without a science or engineering degree account for 15%, while 78% is accounted for by differences among those with a science or engineering degree. For the latter group, we find that women’s underrepresentation in engineering and in jobs involving development and design explain much of the gap…

The disparity has real economic consequences: “The gender patenting gap is of economic significance: eliminating the patenting shortfall of female holders of science and engineering degrees would increase GDP per capita by 2.7%.”

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  1. YX says:

    From my experience, girls gets involved in science / math at about same level as boys in elementary school. A large portion, if not most of the top tier science / math students were girls in my classes. However, this changes dramatically during high school, even when same classes largely remained together.

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    • Joe J says:

      Many years ago I had asked one girl why she was dropping out of AP Calc. Her answer was basically, she was being teased by her female friends for being seen with nerds, and besides poetry was more fun. Being a big nerd myself, pretty much lost contact with her.
      Hoping the anti-nerd attitude has changed over the decades but I doubt that it has.

      Aside from that on IQ women generally have a narrower bell curve with IQ than men. Meaning that men have more extremes, more idiot and more genius, which may be a factor.

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      • YX says:

        But the same effect is true in countries like Japan, China, India and Russia from my understanding, where nerdy is much more of a norm than exception, so the cool factor doesn’t really hold.

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    • Shane L says:

      It was completely opposite in my school, where most male teenagers shunned academic work and hassled any boys who made an effort at mathematics, science, languages – basically anything except sports and woodwork. Science classes were overwhelmingly dominated by girls; the boys tended to aim for careers in construction, which carried more machismo than more mentally-stimulating work.

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  2. Mike B says:

    Women holding fewer patents is only a problem IF that means they are simply not inventing things OR if men are somehow stealing their ideas. If women are inventing new, non-obvious things, but simply choosing not to patent them then they should be applauded for putting society and the public domain ahead of their own selfish needs. If there is a problem with today’s patent system it is that too many things are patented, not too few. It is a testament to their gender that women aren’t looking to make a living going around suing people on dubious grounds.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 12 Thumb down 14
    • Robyn Goldstein (female) says:

      Dear Mike B,

      You made two false assumptions. 1)one gets a patent (in my case trademark) only for selfish reasons. 2)the only reason to get one is for the purpose of looking to make a living filing suits on dubious legal grounds.

      When it comes to making a scientific advance/discovery- I see no reason why I or anyone else who has made an original discovery should not get the credit where the credit is due.

      As to the explanation of our differences, that will be in print. I will say this, my grandmother made every effort to keep her lawyer husband believing that he was in charge. She told this very funny story of being in the country and having people to dinner. They were glat kosher so no meat and milk. WEll, how this happened I don’t know, but the cooked chicken was flung in the air and landed across the room in a bowl of milk. My grandmother washed it off and served it. Never reported the incident i.e., kept the truth as to who really was in charge of their kitchen/household to herself.

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  3. keith says:

    Maybe men and women have different fundamental needs because of being complementary not identical? Just a far out thought…

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    • ET says:

      I agree, men and women do have different needs and are not identical. In fact, I’m so far out I actually think this applies to all individuals, regardless of gender.

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  4. Kevin P. says:

    Full disclosure: I am a patent holder – 3 patents in the semiconductor industry.

    This is another in a long series of silly efforts to impose gender equality without too much thought or understanding. Particularly this statement:
    …eliminating the patenting shortfall of female holders of science and engineering degrees would increase GDP per capita by 2.7%.”

    Patents are typically filed by people working at the peak of a pyramid of science and engineering jobs, companies and industry. The pyramid has a very wide base. If you want to increase the number of X at the peak, you need to increase the number of X at the base.

    There are fewer women in the base of science and engineering, and there will therefore be fewer at the top as well.

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  5. Beast says:

    The fact that neuroscience tells us that men and women are as chemically different on the inside as they appear on the outside (on average of course) is a fact that even the most objective researchers employing a scientific method always choose to ignore and instead ask questions that simply amount to “Hey you guys why do most men have higher levels of testosterone than women?”

    I don’t know why women choose not to file patents however the most likely explanation is that on average they make different choices than men do and this is very plausible since variation is a known staple of evolution but sorry thats a boring conclusion.

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    • Luteguy says:

      Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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      • Et says:

        Incurious? They’re outright simple minded. In fact, it was obvious until the 1970s, at least, that they had no place in science and that their menstrual cycles could flat out ruin experiments, not to mention kill crops.

        Clearly this is all down to nature, nothing else. Certainly not people’s attitudes.

        Here’s hoping you’re not a teacher, parent or any type of authority figure (except maybe a priest or imame, there you’ll fit right in).

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  6. Clancy says:

    The study seems to treat “Science and Engineering” as one broad category, but what about a breakdown across sub-fields? It seems like it might be the case that some fields like software engineering that are heavily male dominated are also very active in the patent application department. Maybe a way to bring the gender gap down is to limit software patents?

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  7. TBallgame says:

    As a patent attorney, I have to ask, what is the difference between a ‘regular patent’ and a ‘commercial patent’?

    I probably file 5-7 patent applications each year for independent inventors (i.e., getting the patent for themselves or a company in which they own more than 50% interest). I can think of only two such applications I have filed on behalf of women. Approximately 32,000 of approximately 378,000 patents issued in 2010 were granted to independent inventors, whereas 20,000-27,000 patents are held by women.

    Also, since more than one person can be an inventor, does that mean >95% of patents are held by men or is that men hold 15% of patents and corporate entities hold 80% (hypothetical numbers)?

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  8. Eric M. Jones. says:

    I have a double-handful of patents (10) in the medical device and electronics industries. I have heard many explanations for why women don’t get many patents:

    1) Women express their creativity in ways and in fields that don’t usually generate patents.
    2) Men have better spatial reasoning.
    3) Men create objects, women create life.
    4) Most people live up to (or down to) society’s expectations–and this included patent attorneys’ expectations. If more women were patent attorneys the situation would not exist.
    5) More idiots and more geniuses are men. I am usually the former but occasionally the latter.
    6) I observe that the really smart guys are usually guys (with beards, questionable bathing habits, and mismatched socks…if they even wear socks).

    But I also think that men and women are simply constructed of different stuff. And women are, after all, the creators of society. Men are just allowed to live in it. So far…

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