The Patent Gap: A New Marketplace Podcast

(Photo: Argonne National Laboratory)

Our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast is called “The Patent Gap.” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript below.)  

It centers around a new working paper called “Why Don’t Women Patent?” by Jennifer HuntJean-Philippe Garant, Hannah Herman, and David J. Munroe. We talk to one of its authors, the Rutgers economist Jennifer Hunt. (We recently previewed this research on the blog, and some of Hunt’s earlier research too.)

The paper argues that: a) only 5.5% of commercialized or licensed patents are held by women; that b) this gap cannot be significantly explained by the fact that fewer women hold science and engineering degrees, as “women with such a degree are scarcely more likely to patent than women without”; and that c) closing the “patent gap” could “increase U.S. GDP per capita by 2.7%.”

As Hunt puts it:

HUNT: “Women’s talents must just be being underutilized in this area — science and engineering innovation.  So it seems as though we’re misusing talent and we’re overlooking talent that could be used to improve technology and economic growth.”

The Marketplace piece uses the patent-gap story as a jumping-off point to discuss the larger issue of the salary gender gap, which we’ve written about in SuperFreakonomics and on the blog.

There are of course a lot of factors to think about within the gender gap: self-selection, discrimination, and of course differences between men and women. In the Marketplace piece, we look into the growing evidence that women seem to embrace less risk and compete differently when going up against men than when going up against other women.

To that end, we hear from the economist Alison Booth (also a successful fiction writer!) who’s done research in this realm. One of her experiments (also featured recently on the blog) showed that females were more willing to take risks in a single-sex environment.

So what should be done if so many women’s talents aren’t being properly exploited?

I propose one idea at the end of the Marketplace segment that, while seemingly practical, will certainly not be to everyone’s taste. Some might even think it repugnant.

Audio Transcript

Kai Ryssdal: Time now for a little Freakonomics Radio. It's that moment every two weeks where we talk to Stephen Dubner, the co-author of the books and the blog of the same name. It is the hidden side of everything. Dubner, welcome back.

Stephen Dubner: Thank you, Kai. I want to talk to you about this economic buzzword these days -- innovation. You know, we've got to innovate our way back to greatness. Do you know who's got the most room for improvement in the innovation field?

Ryssdal: You and me, baby.

Dubner: That's the sad truth, isn't it? But if you look at the data on patents, patent filing, it turns out that woman are responsible for only about 7.5 percent of all patents filed.

Ryssdal: That's amazing. It leaves 93-something percent for men. That's ridiculous.

Dubner: Well, 92 something. But you know, math is not your strong suit.

Ryssdal: All right. I'm a history guy, not a math guy. It has to be science and engineering, right? And the lack of women therein.

Dubner: Yeah, that's a very sensible first thought, not a bad one, Kai. You're doing better. But it's a surprising fact. The fact is that even women with science and engineering degrees aren't much more likely to file a patent than women with other degrees. Now Jenny Hunt, who's an economist at Rutgers, she says that one big factor is you just don't find a lot of women in the kind of sweet-spot jobs within an industry that lead to a lot of patent filing.

Jenny Hunt: Men are more likely to be in jobs involving design work or development work. So the "D" in the R&D. And even within given fields of study, women are less likely to be in those jobs and that also reduces their patenting.

Now this idea, Kai, actually explains a lot of the male-female wage gap across the board in different industries -- whether it's business or medicine or education. Women end up gravitating toward the lower-paying jobs within those fields. So, say, a general practice physician versus a surgeon.

Ryssdal: All right. So is that women being steered away from those jobs,is that subtle discrimination? Or is it women making the career and family choice that men seldom make? I mean, there's a lot going on, right?

Dubner: It is all of the above, certainly. Probably most of the latter. A lot of it is by choice, but not all of it. Some of it is discrimination. But the bigger point that Jenny Hunt is making about the patent data is that by having such a low rate of female patenting -- even within the science and engineering fields -- the U.S. is missing an opportunity. She argues that closing the male-female in science and engineering would have a dramatic effect on the economy. That it might lift GDP per capita by as much as 2.7 percent.

Ryssdal: Wow, which is a huge jump given the way the economy is growing these days -- or not.

Dubner: Massive.

Ryssdal: How do we get there?

Dubner: It's interesting. There's a lot of research showing that men are bigger risk takers than women. Now, I talked to an economics professor in Britain. Her name is Alison Booth. She had cooked up an experiment to look at this male-female risk gap. She randomly assigned a bunch of first-year economic students to either single-sex classes or co-ed classes. So there were all female groups, all male groups, and mixed -- all randomly selected. Then she had each student take a test to determine risk aversion. And then after eight weeks of class, she gave all the students the same test. And here's what she learned:

Alison Booth: We found that the girls who'd been in single-sex groups all the way through the term were behaving the same as the boys who were in single-sex groups. So it was only the girls who were in the co-educational group who were making fewer risky choices.

Ryssdal: That's amazing. Two months away from boys or men, and women want more risk.

Dubner: Women seem to compete better when they're competing against women. And once you bring men into the equation, they kind of dial it down a little bit. That's what we're seeing in a lot of the research.

Ryssdal: That's wild. So get me back to patents and innovation. How do we get there?

Dubner: Well, here's one thought: if I'm a Google or a GE of the U.S. government and I truly want to maximize my resources, really get the most out of all my employees, I might try something that's so old-fashioned that it will strike a lot of people as repugnant.

Ryssdal: I know where you're going.

Dubner: I might actually segregate my workforce. I might actually let my sharpest women set up shop separately away from the men and just see what kind of wonderful stuff they can produce on their own.

Ryssdal: You know, I was going to give you a hard time, but it'd be actually interesting. I don't know. Stephen Dubner, is the website. We'll see you in a couple of weeks.

Dubner: OK Kai. Thanks very much.

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  1. Lee Zimmerman says:

    This is silly in two ways. First, it makes a strange leap that patents are somehow associated with aggressiveness and the willingness to take risks. If this were the case, the NFL should be a tremendous source of intellectual property. Second, the salary gender gap seems to be reversing. Men in their 20’s are making 80 cents for every dollar that a woman in her twenties makes. Is this the gap you are talking about?

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1
    • Shane L says:

      I haven’t listened to the podcast yet, but it does seem a plausible leap to connect risk-taking with patent-seeking. I can imagine a more cautious and humble inventor or engineer hesitating and trying to make sure that his or her invention is perfect before risking rejection or ridicule by seeking a patent. Meanwhile a brash and aggressive individual would barge ahead and demand credit.

      These are caricatures I’m describing, but in more subtle terms I can imagine general traits of slightly more assertive and risk-taking men pushing ahead despite the danger of rejection and failure, while slightly more cautious women hesitate.

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      • Gene Novak says:

        Maybe men just have an natural inclination to create things as a way to improve our value to society and possibly make us more attractive to women. A woman’s value to a man is based on youth and beauty. Men have to prove themselves as worthy for women to accept him. Men compete to do this. There’s a reason you never hear about women working in their garage trying to build things. There’s a reason that despite anyone being about to develop Open Source software I don’t think I’ve ever heard of any women creating any. I believe all hackers are males as well.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      > Men in their 20?s are making 80 cents for every dollar that a woman in her twenties makes.

      That’s only when you compare unmarried, childless women, not all 20 year olds, and the effect is coimpletely explained by the women’s greater willingness to complete a college degree.

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  2. alex in chicago says:

    Here is a simple explanation which is nearly impossible to verify:

    Perhaps groups of people desire a certain amount of cumulative risk, and males are more adept/willing/discounting/etc and take on that risk in co-ed groups. Women who perceive they are in a risk-averse group begin to take on that risk (begrudgingly). This study doesn’t have its own logical follow-up: Re-randomize the sets of students and see if the increased female risk taking persists even in a co-ed environment, or if it is only temporary.

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  3. RJ Roy says:

    I can’t look at the paper to see the methodology, but does the research take into account ALL commercial patents, or just a set? Because if you’re looking at 5.5% of all commercial patents made ever since the beginning of patents being held by women (even if it’s discounting ones that are no longer used in commercial purposes), then the easiest explination is the fact that there were whole decades in which women couldn’t hold patents at all.

    I’m expecting that the paper is smarter then that, though.

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  4. James says:

    Could it be more of an ego thing? That is, men are more apt to see their tiny variation on existing practice as worthy of a patent, while women don’t patent unless it’s really a significant development.

    It would be interesting to see whether there’s a difference between sexes in the ratio of patent applications to patents granted.

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    • kateswist says:


      I had the same reaction…I think women are less likely to think that they are the first person to EVER think of such a great idea/product/widget than a man is. I think ego has a lot to do with it.

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  5. Giants Pat says:

    Everyone knows the importance of first impressions. These presumed academics wrote a paper, “Why Don’t Women Patent?” Too bad they can’t write using proper English grammer or be smart enough to hire a professional proofreader. Some people wouldn’t bother to read further expecting there’ll be more distasteful displays. For those who didn’t instantly spot the error, it’s easy to show and prove by writing the phrase without using the contraction Don’t. The error is clear when you rewrite their sentence, “Why Do Not Women Patent?”

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    • Polina Pomerants says:

      I agree because I believe their question had a wrong focus. Because they concentrated on the biased belief that women are socially expected to not patent, they were inclined to find reasons instead of explanations of the overall trend

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    • John says:

      It’s great and painfully ironic that you criticized their grammar, when in fact, you spelled misspelled grammar with grammer.

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    • matt says:

      “Why Don’t Women Patent?” is the reason somebody might not read further? How silly.

      Why do you not relax more? Why do you not give these people a break? Why do you not spell “grammar” correctly?

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  6. Dan says:

    There are massive innate differences between men and women, as there are massive innate differences between ethnic groups. That’s part of what makes the world so great and so complicated.

    Is reality troubling?

    I have worked in intellectual property for many years and the differences between among some different nationalities and ethnic groups in patent filing is larger even than the difference among men and women.

    If you want to get down to brass tacks, you will note that nations with high patent output tend to have low birthrates and nations with low to non-existent patent output tend to have far higher birthrates. Israel is the only nation on Earth that combines high patent output with above-replacement birthrates. There were once many such nations.

    Give this comment a thumbs down if you want, but better yet, please refute me. I’d love to be wrong.

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  7. Dana Theus says:

    Thanks for covering this important and perplexing subject. I spend an inordinate amount of my time researching this issue (women’s contribution, and gap closure strategies) in the broader business realm and I am aware of the research you cite about women taking more risk in single-sex environments. There are lots of reasons for this, most of which are cultural though not all.

    I read the npr article. I don’t find the idea of single-sex research or work groups repugnant – but I don’t personally think it’s the solution. Here are two additional ideas I can add to the discussion:

    1) I’m not so sure that we really understand how women and risk get along. I wrote about it more extensively here ( but in looking at various studies on women and risk-taking it’s not clear they’re using a common definition of risk. There’s the wing-and-a-prayer risk that women seem to shy away from in favor of more considered risk. IE, there are different kinds of risk and women and men seem predisposed to different flavors. Both have their strengths and are needed. In the research realm I suppose it can be argued that wing-and-a-prayer risk is more valuable? I don’t know. What do you think? If that’s the case, then maybe women-only research teams would be a good addition to the mix.

    2) In the business realm, it’s pretty clear that single sex teams are NOT more productive, but that gender balanced teams are ( We don’t have a sample size of female-dominant businesses to compare, but when comparing male-dominant businesses* to those where women hold 30%+ of the leadership positions, profitability and productivity dramatically increase. The reason for this is complex but based on a broad spectrum of research it seems to stem from the fact that in groups where neither sex is in the minority, they bring out each other’s strengths when it comes to group intelligence, emotional intelligence, individual intelligence and social intelligence. Together we’re stronger. Again, in a scientific context I don’t know how this would translate, but I’d put my bets on gender-partnered teams over gender-dominant ones.

    This discussion falls prey to a bias that we ALL have (myself included), which is to fall into polarity talking about this subject. Women/men, male/female, feminine/masculine – it’s virtually impossible to discuss this subject without falling heavily towards one end or the other. I’m struggling to find language to discuss the balance, where both aspects contribute equally. Gendership?

    Thoughts are welcome. Thanks for generating the great dialog on an important subject.

    *by “male-dominant businesses” I mean those where there are few or no women in leadership positions (board level or CSuite, typically) consistently over the past 4 years.

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    • Tammy says:

      I agree, men and women are different and have natural built in qualities that are supposed to enhance the opposite sex. But out of nesessity we can go against the grain. We just don’t normally like do it , therefore we hardly ever do. I have taught my boys to wash the dishes and cook , so they know how. My boys know how to sew a button on. My girls know how to check their oil and change a tire. Now do their natural desires go in these directions , no. because they are different. I am the mother of 9 children . And out of need became an Inventor of The Trilitary Pac. And The Flipsyy.

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      • Tammy says:

        I agree, men and women are different and have natural built in qualities that are supposed to enhance the opposite sex. But out of nessesity we can go against the grain.

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      • Tammy says:

        The Trilitary Pac is a Non Provisional Utility Patent with a Projection date of 09/18/14. It is a backpack hammock tent that flips over into a two man tent.It can be carried on your back with several kinds of vests. Keep your eye out for, US13/815,212.

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