Women Patent Holders Are Far Fewer Than Men Even In The 21st Century

Women continue to face numerous challenges in the field of science and technology even today.

Data obtained from the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) shows that women hold fewer patents compared to men. Only 10.3% of patents granted in the US in 1998 had at least one female inventor. In 2001, women accounted for 8.8% of patents filed by Americans at the European Patent Office. In 2005, the proportion dropped to 8.2%. Countries with the highest proportion of women filing patents at the European patent office were Spain (12.3%) and France (10.2%), while those with the lowest proportion were Germany and Austria, with 4.7% and 3.2% respectively. Overall the patenting rate among women at the USPTO increased from 2.7% in 1976 to 10.8% in 2013.The gender gap in patenting raises concerns that the difference reflects gender inequity and inefficient use of innovative female capacity as opposed to reflecting differing tastes by gender. 

The Patenting Process

For an idea of an invention to be patented, it should not be already publicly available, and it should not be described in a previous patent. Ideas that meet the criteria then have to undergo a patent search to ascertain that the idea is truly unique. Search fees can range between $30 and $600, depending on the complexity of the invention. It would also depend on the size of the entity applying for the patent. When the search results show that the idea had not been previously patented, then one can apply for either a provisional patent (which delays examination and associated costs) or a non-provisional patent (which is examined before issuance of a patent). A provisional patent costs between$65 and $260 and lasts for 12 months. 

Non-provisional patents take more time and effort as the application has to contain a disclosure of the invention (specification) and claims. Non-provisional patent fees can range from $300 to $1,960. Surcharges for late submission, an extension of time, an accelerated exam, and other special requests can, however, increase costs by thousands of dollars. If the application is rejected, the examiner gives the applicant reasons for the rejection and an opportunity to make amendments or make objections. If the idea is rejected twice, the applicant can appeal the decision. If the patent is ultimately granted, one is required to pay an issue fee in the range of $140 to $960 and a $300 publication fee. To keep the patent in force, maintenance fees have to be paid. For a patent lasting 12 years or more, applicants pay maintenance fees that range from $3000 to over $12, 000. Hiring patent attorneys to help navigate the process can increase costs by thousands of dollars.

Understanding The Challenges Faced By Women

Studies have shown that women are less likely to be granted a patent compared to men and are also less likely to license or commercialize patents granted to them. To reduce the gender patenting gap, one requires an understanding of the reasons behind the under-representation of women among patent holders to better address the obstacles currently inhibiting women form patenting.

Complex And Costly Processes

To most inventors, the patent application process is a risky venture because it is expensive. Commercialization of the patent can result in significant monetary gain. In some instances, financial rewards can, however, be outweighed by patent application costs. The accumulated costs can pose a significant obstacle for those who wish to patent an idea. Financial barriers are likely greater for women because they tend to have access to fewer financial resources compared to men. The challenge is exacerbated by the fact that women earn less than men. In 2014, women working full-time jobs all year round earned just 80 cents on the dollar compared to men. Women are also less likely to have access to adequate start-up capital and outside equity to finance their ventures. In 2012, more than one in three businesses owned by women had no access to start-up capital.

On the other hand, nearly eight in ten businesses owned by men had access to capital. Men are also four times more likely to obtain outsider equity for their business compared to women. In 2010, the proportion of outside equity in men-owned businesses was about 12.8% compared to just 3% in women-owned businesses. Women were more likely to finance their venture through owner debt and equity (at 8% and 12.7% respectively) compared to men (with owner debt and equity at 4% and 9.1% respectively).

Less Patent-intensive Job Tasks And Fields

Women are generally underrepresented in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math). Women also account for just a quarter of the STEM workforce. Despite a considerable increase in educational attainment among women relative to men, the disparity has remained constant over the past decade. A rise in the number of graduates in STEM fields statistically has a positive impact on patent activity. An increase in the share of non-Stem, on the other hand, does not. The patenting gender gap can be linked to the larger pattern of educational and occupational segregation. A recent study examining the gender patenting difference found that only 7% of women’s underrepresentation in licensed and commercialized patenting could be attributed to the underrepresentation of women in science and engineering fields (S&E). The study also found that 78% of the commercial patenting gap was due to low patenting rates among women with S&E degrees. The remaining 15% was attributed to lower patenting rates among women without S&E degrees. The results of the study suggest that STEM education is not the only driver of the patenting gender gap. The results indicate that while increasing women’s representation in stem fields is essential, eliminating obstacles to patenting for women with S&E degrees would be more effective in bridging the gap.

Limited Networks

Studies have found that social and informal ties within industry organizations can significantly enhance product innovation and resource exchange. Structural network characteristics, including the inventor’s centrality in their network and their role, bridging gaps in the network, strongly influence decisions made by firms to pursue particular areas of research. Rich networks give inventors access to more information, which increases the quality of research and patenting rates. Access to a mentor or a peer with a patenting experience can also be helpful to inventors. Due to exclusion from STEM fields (dating back centuries), women scientists have limited access to extensive networks. Therefore, women lack access to sufficient resource-rich networks, which likely impedes their patenting activity. Networks are particularly important for academic scientists as the field has more centralized networks, where most scientists are connected to one or two top scientists. Studies have found that men are more centrally located in networks compared to women, underscoring academic women’s peripheral status in academic co-patenting networks.

Socialization And Biases In Commercial Science

Society-level gender socialization establishes proscriptions and prescriptions of who men and women are and what they do. The category of “woman” can, therefore, proscribe certain norms for communication. For example, women might be more hesitant to speak up in meetings, particularly those composed solely of men. When women who do speak are often unconsciously ignored or interrupted by men. Greater participation of men in early academic, commercial science meant that the role of academic, commercial scientists was gradually constructed as male, effectively discouraging the participation of women. Women who participate in the fields are more likely to view themselves as less competent compared to their male counterparts. 

Gendered Attitude

Studies have found a gendered attitude towards integrating patenting activity in academic careers. Women generally communicate that patenting reduces the time meant for students, teaching, and other obligations to the university, such as administrative work. Men, on the other hand, think that patenting helps improve their teaching. Women are also more likely to describe obstacles and challenges, such as balancing multiple career elements that hinder their career progress compared to men who view patent decisions as unproblematic and driven by translational interests. Women also express concern over the possible effects of patenting on faculty responsibilities while men express a lack of concern over negative impacts on their careers. Sexism and misogyny also present significant challenges that hinder patent pursuit. 

Family Responsibilities

Women are generally viewed as caregivers. Studies have found that female academic scientists with children are less likely to pursue patents compared to their male counterparts.

Lack Of Uniform Support Structures

Institutionalized support for women’s patenting activity is vital since they often lack adequate resources and access to networks. Women who lack advantages related to personal networks turn to university technology offices or their companies for information on the patenting process, advice, and encouragement, while men typically rely on their networks. Women who are not affiliated with a company or university and often have fewer resources they can tap. Institutional support is also crucial as it provides critical funding needed in the pursuit of patents.

Addressing Challenges Faced By Women

Addressing challenges faced by women in the pursuit of patents requires a cultural shift in attitudes. Experts also believe that systems and data tools should be developed that better track the progress of women in the patenting process. Women and girls who are interested in STEM fields should receive adequate support. The support should not only focus on encouragement and mentorship but should also address systemic barriers women face, including overt discrimination and harassment, sexism, and misogyny. Organizations should establish structures that ensure adequate enforcement as well as appropriate consequences for harassment and discriminatory behavior. Experts also recommend the establishment of family-friendly workplace policies that attract and retain talented female employees. Institutions should encourage patent pursuits and foster women inventors and entrepreneurs.


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