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Equity pending: Why so few women receive patents

Why We Wrote This

The US Patent Office's 10 millionth patent is a testament to American innovation. But the patent rolls also shed light on a persistent challenge: gender disparities in innovation-heavy fields.

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

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The United States Patent and Trademark Office issued its 10 millionth utility patent last month, but women's advocates are focusing on another number: According to a 2012 study, less than 8 percent of patents are granted to women. “I was shocked when I first learned how infrequently women patent,” says Jennifer Hunt, a Rutgers University economist who led the study. “We are clearly not managing to put a large fraction of the population in a position to innovate.” Experts attribute the gender gap to women’s underrepresentation in patent-intensive jobs, particularly engineering, where schedules can be inflexible and where women experience more incivility directed at them. But the climate is improving, says Jessica Milli, an economist with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. “People are calling out sexism left and right,” she says. “We are seeing some of that societal shift happen. And I am definitely hoping that it will continue.”

Since the first patent was awarded on July 31, 1790, to Philadelphia inventor Samuel Hopkins for developing a new way to make potash, the United States has granted patents for inventions ranging from the revolutionary, like the cotton gin and the electric light, to the whimsical, like Patent No. 6168531, a giant bowl of interactive simulated soup.

But as the US Patent Office issued its 10 millionth patent last month, one thing has changed little since the republic’s early days: Almost all of the patents go to men. A 2012 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that just 7.5 percent of patents were granted to women, and that just 5.5 percent of patents commercialized or licensed were done so by women. 

“I was shocked when I first learned how infrequently women patent,” says Jennifer Hunt, a Rutgers University economist who led the study. “We are clearly not managing to put a large fraction of the population in a position to innovate.” 

The causes for the gender gap are varied and complex, but much of it can be explained by women’s underrepresentation in patent-intensive jobs, particularly engineering. Research shows women make up roughly 20 percent of graduates from engineering schools, but hold less than 15 percent of engineering jobs. Female engineering grads are not entering the field at the same rate as their male counterparts, and they are leaving in far greater numbers.

“It’s the climate,” says Nadya Fouad, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “The organizational environment is very unforgiving.”

Professor Fouad, who spent three years surveying women with engineering degrees about their career choices, cites inflexible schedules, a lack of opportunities for advancement, and incivility toward women. “It’s not the women’s fault,” she says, noting that she found no difference in levels of confidence in those who stayed and those who left.

Other barriers women face are an absence of supportive social networks and implicit bias on the part of venture capitalists. “They tend to ask women more difficult questions to try and put them on the spot and figure out how they’re going to manage disaster,” says Jessica Milli, an economist with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, of venture capitalists. “Whereas men, they tend to ask questions about their growth aspirations.”

The gender gap illustrates not just a waste of resources spent on training women in an industry they don’t end up working in, but also of human potential. “Many women are not able to achieve their full professional potential as innovators,” says Professor Hunt. “Another consideration is that female innovators would be more likely to make advances that would improve the lives of women.”

In her research, Dr. Milli estimated that at the current rate of change, it would take 75 years before women and men are granted an equal number of patents. But in 2018, she sees signs of a cultural transformation that could accelerate the process.

“People are calling out sexism left and right,” she says. “We are seeing some of that societal shift happen. And I am definitely hoping that it will continue.” 

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Five influential patents awarded to women:

Hats off: When Mary Kies of Killingly, Conn., came up with a method of weaving together silk and straw, she didn’t keep the idea under her hat. Instead, she patented the idea in 1809, helping to turn New England into a millinery powerhouse and earning her the first US patent awarded to a woman.

Clean plate club: After a servant washing dishes chipped a piece of fine china belonging to Josephine Cochrane, of Shelbyville, Ill., she teamed up with mechanic George Butters to build a mechanical alternative. Patented in 1886, the Cochrane Dishwasher wasn’t the first automatic dishwasher, but it was the first to use water pressure instead of scrubbers and the first to become a commercial success.

Right as rain: When Mary Anderson of Birmingham, Ala., visited New York City near the turn of the 20th century, she noticed that streetcar drivers had to stick their heads out the window when it rained. Her solution: a manually operated blade that would remove the rain from the window, today known as a windshield wiper.

Catch a wave: When the Austrian Jewish actress and anti-fascist Hedy Lamarr learned that German naval forces in World War II were jamming radio-controlled torpedoes and sending them off course, she worked with avant-garde composer George Antheil to develop a frequency-hopping mechanism whose principles are used in wireless technologies today.

A shot in the dark: DuPont chemist Stephanie Kwolek didn’t set out to make bulletproof vests when she began experimenting with extended-chain aromatic polyamides. But when she ran her cloudy, crystalline fluid through a spinneret, the result was a fiber lighter than fiberglass but five times as strong as steel. DuPont called it Kevlar.

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