Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Women, patents, and innovation

The fact that we need more women in the sciences has been discussed many times before on this blog. See the previous posts here, here, and here. Yet these questions remain: how badly is sexism hurting scientific progress? How do we measure innovation?

One way of measuring innovation and conferring recognition is awarding patents. So, how are women faring at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO)? The National Bureau of Economic Research found in 2012 that women hold 7.5% of all patents, and 5.5% of commercial patents. The gap between men and women is not due to a lack of women in hard sciences and engineering. Only 7% of the gap can be explained by that observation. It was stated that more representation in those fields would not make a difference absent other changes. While the lack of women in electrical and mechanical engineering, along with design and development, accounts for 40% of the gap, 29% is due to women being younger than their male counterparts in patent-intensive fields.

Many individuals became encouraged when The National Women's Business Council released a report that found women had doubled their share of patents in the last 22 years. Women hold 18% of the patents filed since 1990, and the number of patents granted to women increased by 35% in 2010. However, some researchers claim that the data used in these reports has too many problematic elements to be accurate. Gender on patent applications is indirectly sourced, and aggregate USPTO data may have been used incorrectly. Regardless of how women's patenting achievements are measured, it is agreed that women are closing the gap, but they are not at men's levels.

Helen Anderson and Mindee Hardin, patent holders of products for busy mothers, say that women need to disregard discouragement, and believe in themselves. Women have higher participation in trademarks, and the USPTO now has its first woman director, Michelle Lee. But the lack of a peer network in some areas is still a problem. The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) acknowledges that women also tend to avoid commercialization, have less access to venture capital, and contend with laws that favor men. Also, women are often employees, instead of employers, in research and development teams. Service patents, which are awarded to the employer, would thus reflect disparities within companies.

If women are not on par with men's patenting rates, what of innovation? Whether patents are indicative of innovative progress is questioned, and even the definition of innovation has been criticized. Innovation is assessed by technological and industrial standards, and the term could be excluding many "feminine" improvements in human welfare. Therefore, women's contributions could be difficult to measure.

To end this post, here is an interesting account of Elizabeth Magie, the feminist who invented and patented the game of Monopoly. Magie also made headlines in the early 1900's for advertising herself for sale as "a young woman American slave" in order to make a statement about women's position during that time.

1 comment:

Heather said...

There is a new documentary out exploring the dearth of American female software engineers called CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap. The director, Robin Hauser Reynolds, was driven to make the film after her daughter, one of two females in a class of 35 computer science majors, dropped out of her program because she felt that she was not as equipped or supported as she perceived her male counterparts to be. According to Reynolds, culture and stereotype are part of the problem and have created a pipeline issue. At least part of the reason that women are underrepresented in innovation may be because women are not encouraged to study fields were inventions are typically made. In an interview, Reynolds highlighted a famous Gloria Steinem quote, “Women have always been an equal part of the past. We just haven’t been a part of history.” As you mention in your post, the patent and invention gap is starting to close as culture slowly shifts and women demand not just to be a part of history, but to make it.

For more information about the film, see http://www.codedocumentary.com/.

For an interesting interview with the director, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BKEpVN1HXEA&feature=youtu.be/.