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Around the world women are building businesses, driving scientific breakthroughs, setting new trends and propelling change.
World IP Day 2023 celebrates the achievements of women inventors, creators and entrepreneurs and their ground-breaking work. Led by WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organisation) it also flags an issue:
‘Too few women are participating in the intellectual property (IP) system. That means too few women are benefitting from IP. And when women lose out, we all lose out.’
In this article, Dr Marianne Privet, looks at what ‘too few’ really means and makes recommendations to encourage positive change that will benefit everyone.
Whilst it is undoubtedly true that women inventors deserve to be celebrated for the many important inventions they have made, analysis of the inventors named on patent applications around the world shows that a disproportionately low number of women are named as inventors. Although the determination of an inventor’s gender is a little crude (since it is based on inventors’ first names), the differences in the proportion of women and men who are named as inventors is so striking that it cannot be dismissed.
Patent Applications by Women
The good news is that all the studies reviewed when researching this article show a steady increase in the number of women named as inventors over time. For example, a recent European Patent Office (EPO) study1 found that the proportion of women named as inventors in EPO applications increased from approximately 2% in the late 1970s to more than 13% in 2019. The bad news is that they all reflect a slow pace of change and WIPO estimates that it will take over 20 years for the gender gap in inventors on patent applications to level out2.
The studies also show that whilst there is variance between different countries or regions, there is less variance than might be expected. For example, a study published in 2017 by the UK Intellectual Property Office (UK IPO)3 reviewed patent filings in more than 80 countries and estimated that only 12.7% of inventors named in patent applications in these countries (including the US) were women, so the EU is only slightly ahead of the curve. Interestingly, a study published by the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) in 20194 estimated that only 12.8% of inventors receiving US patents were women.
Teams vs sole inventors,
An interesting point that emerges from many of the studies is that women are most commonly named as inventors in a mixed gender team. For example, the UK IPO study3 found that 27% of patents listed mixed gender teams and less than 7% of granted patents list teams made up solely of women (0.3%) or an individual woman as the sole inventor (6%). So, women were involved in 33.3% of patents, in contrast to men being involved in 93.7%. Furthermore, both the UK IPO study3 and the EPO study1 showed that mixed teams are likely to include more inventors than teams made up of only men.
Sectors where there are more Women Inventors
Patent applications are assigned technical classifications on filing. These can be broadly classified as belonging in five different sectors: chemistry, instruments, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and other fields. All the studies reviewed when researching this article found that the sector with the most women named as inventors was chemistry. The WIPO study2 found that approximately 60% of women named as inventors were in the chemical sector whilst the UK IPO study4 found that approximately 35% of chemistry-related patents had at least one woman named as an inventor.
The studies also found that women were more likely to be named as inventors on patents originating from academia than from industry. This may be because university patents and inventions in the chemical sector tend to result from larger inventor teams than those in other sectors.
Why are there so few women inventors?
UK government statistics show that, although the proportion of women in core-science, engineering and tech roles is increasing, it is significantly lower than the proportion of men5. For example, in 2022 women accounted for 26.9% of those employed in core science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) roles, 13.6% of engineering professionals and 19.9% of IT professionals. Similar trends are observed in other countries. Numerous campaigns focus on increasing the number of girls who study STEM subjects, but progressively lower proportions of women continue with STEM subjects from undergraduate to postgraduate study and then into research. This is sometimes called the “leaky pipeline” 6. Therefore, one potential explanation for the low number of women inventors is that there are simply fewer women in the roles that generate inventions.
Another reason could be that women are less likely to promote their individual successes. Numerous studies have shown that women are less likely to speak up in meetings7, less likely to promote themselves within the workplace8 and less likely to be credited in a scientific publication9. Women also tend to have fewer role models10 and less powerful networks11. So, it may be that women inventors are being missed because they are not putting themselves forward and their contribution to an inventor team is undervalued or even unknown.
Another factor influencing the low number of women being named as inventors is that women experience certain barriers to developing their inventions that men do not. For example, studies have shown that women are less able to access funding to develop their ideas12 and are less likely to consider commercialising their ideas13 in the first place. Hence, potential women inventors may not have the funding to protect their working inventions with patents.
What can we do to redress the balance?
The UN recognises the importance of gender equality with its 5th sustainable development goal being achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls. Improving women’s access to education, supporting their career progression and ensuring women have access to finance will help achieve the UN’s goal and will help accelerate progress towards gender parity in the inventors named on patent applications. However, each of these factors is complex and may need to be addressed by multiple, small actions or changes in behaviour. These are my top 10 practical steps that can be taken by those working within the IP professions, within academic institutions and within industry:
Encourage girls’ interest in STEM subjects from a young age by challenging the assumption that there are boys’ and girls’ toys and that STEM subjects are for boys
If you are a woman within the IP professions, within an academic institution or within industry, consider participating in school outreach activities so you can act as a role model to girls and encourage them to study STEM subjects at university
If you are studying for a postgraduate qualification in a STEM subject, working in a research or development role or working in a management role within an academic institution or within industry, consider mentoring women to encourage them and support them as they progress in their careers
Campaign for better parental leave, support for childcare costs and more flexible working practices (since parental responsibilities disproportionately affect women)
Ensure all employees in a research or development role receive IP awareness training and encourage all employees to disclose all potential inventions so that women are motivated to highlight innovations they develop and raise awareness of women inventors within your organisation by publicising their contributions to innovative projects (both those that result in patents and those that do not)
If you work within an academic institution or within industry, consider starting a women’s innovation network
Challenge managers (of any gender) to recognise their unconscious gender bias so that they are less likely to miss women’s contributions to an invention and encourage managers (of any gender) to enquire regarding which team members contributed to an invention rather than assume the list of inventors provided is accurate
If you are a founder who has successfully attracted funding for your idea, consider mentoring women founders so that they can learn from your success
If you are a woman founder, consider participating in outreach activities with your local patent office, innovation hub or similar organisation so you can act as a role model to other women
If you are an investor, challenge yourself to recognise your unconscious gender bias so that you ask the women founders the same questions that you ask men, consider gender-blinding any applications you receive for funding (at least in the initial stages) and consider participating in events or programmes focussed on women or investing in women-only investment funds
Helping Women to Protect their Inventions
Dr Marianne Privett is a Partner and UK Chartered and European Patent Attorney in the Chemistry, Biotechnology and Pharmaceuticals patent department of AA Thornton. She leads our internal Diversity & Inclusion committee and is co-lead of IP Ability, a community that focusses on disability inclusion within the IP professions in the UK. Marianne’s efforts in diversity were recognised in WIPR’s inaugural ‘Diversity Champions’ list in 2021.
Marianne and colleagues offer free consultations to inventors who would like advice on how to protect their first invention. If you are a female inventor in any field and you would like to learn more about how to protect an invention, you can contact Marianne at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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