Why do women get fewer patents? Tackling (yet) another gender gap in tech
Every year, we honor International Women’s Day by showcasing the many brilliant and capable women that populate our lives. Many are responsible for technologies we use every day like heating, lightweight glasses, and even big data algorithms while others are inspiring leaders and everyday heroes.
And yet, the gender gap persists — especially in STEM, where just 21% of the people who work in computing and mathematical occupations are women. To put that in context, 57% of the workforce in the US is female.
As someone who has worked my whole career in STEM, it’s glaring how little female representation exists. It’s a visual that’s impossible to miss. There are simply fewer females in a profession awash in men.
Catalyst, a global nonprofit that works with leading companies to help build better workplaces for women, says that only less than a third of those employed in scientific R&D across the world are women.
Being a patent enthusiast, and having supported innovators for 20 years to protect their ideas with them, I was curious to know if patents too, reflected this gap.
Turns out they do. Shocker.
In a study that the Intellectual Property Office of the UK published in 2019 about the gender profiles in worldwide patenting, they discovered that only 20% of the patents that exist were filed by women or by teams that have at least one woman.
Let that sink in, 80% of the innovation happening in the world is in the hands of men… just men. No wonder the first version of Apple’s HealthKit didn’t include a Period tracker. When homogenous teams build products, they often lack the empathy and insight that comes from working in diverse teams.
Having diverse teams is not about fulfilling a quota. Having a diverse team means having better innovation, more talented people, and more perspectives. When we have diverse teams, we build innovation that caters not only to a part of the population but to a wider group!
Having better solutions is not the only thing that diverse teams can accomplish, it also means more profitable businesses. Good financial performance is closely linked to diverse teams. Diversity is a good financial decision.
Of course, patents don’t reflect everything going on inside of research centers, universities, or companies. But they are a useful metric for just how well the STEM industry is producing
new technologies, inventions and products — and, more importantly for those who really want to close the gender gap in tech, who’s contributing to those results.
Why women aren’t represented in patents
According to the UK Intellectual Property Office, there’s a “leaky pipeline” that gradually reduces the number of women moving through the stages of education, research, and inventorship.
In the beginning, we can see the number of women is higher than the number of men but as careers keep progressing, there’s a clear tendency, way more men “graduate” to being researchers and inventors.
Basically, the gap expands as women advance their careers. Some may take career breaks to raise kids, others may switch careers, and certainly, some find technical fields to be less welcoming and supportive for female contributors. Even those that do stick with the work fight an uphill battle: The number of women publishing scientific papers is lower than those employed as researchers (and went even lower during the pandemic), and those women also face an annual pay gap of $22,500!
The pay and representation gap is also abysmal in tech. Women make up 17% of the workforce and only 7% of investments are made in companies led by a woman. This makes for an unfriendly backdrop for women who want to innovate. At least 70% of women who work in tech have considered leaving their jobs because of limited opportunity for career advancement, unfair compensation compared with men, and little support from managers.
All of these hurdles result in far fewer patents filed and approved by females. With so many structural inequalities (and seemingly an entire world stacked against them), there’s less support for the research and development of inventions that can be patented.
Even when women manage to get all the way to the patent application stage, there are still hurdles to overcome. As UCLA professor Olav Sorenson, emphasizes, equal gender representation doesn’t lead to equal patents: “Even in medicine, a field that has had near gender-parity at the entry-level for the past 30 years, women only account for around 15% of patent holders.”
Sorenson conducted research to measure gender disparity in the awarding of patents. He found that there is indeed a wide gap that appears to be systemic:
“Women are less likely to have their patent applications granted, are more likely to have them revised in ways that narrow their scope, and are less likely to receive citations to their patents.”
So what accounts for these disparities? It’s complex.
The systemic nature of this bias isn’t just on the part of patent examiners. It also comes from the tech industry itself, Sorenson says: “Some research has shown that women simply don’t have role models that have filed for patents, that women undersell their research, making them ineligible to get a patent, and because tech firms are not welcoming environments for women.”
Short answer: Women don’t have the right tools and support to advance their careers and to ultimately develop innovations that become patentable. The gender gap in patents is the endpoint in a system that’s clearly broken.
What we can do to fix this
So, where do we go from here? These are some strategies to help women succeed in the tech industry — and develop pathways to patents that will finally close the gender gap:
In my experience, the most important thing we can do for women who are already in the tech industry is to mentor them. Lack of support is one of the biggest reasons why women leave the tech industry, so let’s guide them, and help them strive in this industry.
2. Institutional initiatives
Nothing will change if institutions don’t take the problem seriously. Every institution that wants to have better innovation and teams, needs to plug the leaky pipeline with dedicated efforts. For example, a University I know decided last year to make an effort to hire more women as teachers and researchers. They didn’t accept applications from men. They said if they didn’t find the right woman for the position in 6 months, they would open the applications for men. Obviously, they found women that could fulfill the positions.
3. Talking about successful women in the tech industry
Stories are transformative. You can’t be what you can’t see! We need to tell the stories of women who have seen success as creators, makers, and inventors. Especially girls and young women need to know that it’s possible to make a career in the tech industry. There are many women that have done it before; by telling those stories, more will be inspired to do it in the future.
We need to hear more about women like Mary Elizabeth Walton who patented a solution to reduce the noise of elevated railway systems and patented it in 1881. Girls interested in tech need to know about Grace Hopper, who invented the first compiler in 1952 and co-invented COBOL, the first universal programming language that was used by businesses and governments. And Hedy Lamarr, a 1940s Hollywood star that spent her free time building the foundation of inventions like WiFi, GPS, and Bluetooth.
Stories are powerful changemakers. When girls and teenagers can see themselves represented, it’s easier for them to follow a career in the tech industry.
Finally, we need to make re-engagement efforts. Women have traditionally had a lower labor force participation rate than men — especially during prime working years of 25–54, which is when many of us dedicate time to take care of our kids. We need to make efforts to bring women back into the STEM field.
By pulling educated women back into academics, research and STEM, we benefit from their knowledge that elevates inventiveness. It also infuses new mentors into the ecosystem, providing an expanded pool of experienced and educated women to empower the next generation.
Even when the odds are stacked against us, we’ve found ways to strive and come up with innovative solutions. If we really want to make every day “women’s day,” then we must reconsider the dynamics that prevent women from achieving at the scale of their male counterparts. It starts by celebrating inventors and providing a path to protecting their inventions so that they can invent more — and inspire the next generation of makers, builders, and creators!
Dvorah Graeser is the CEO of KISS Platform.