A recent study released from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) reveals that much progress has been made to close the patent gender gap over the last four decades. Sadly, despite the fact that the number of women inventors has quintupled since the 1970s, less than 20% of issued U.S. patents have at least one woman inventor and only 7.7% of issued U.S. patents list a woman as the primary inventor. Much work still needs to be done in order to take advantage of the vast resources of creative potential in this largely untapped talent pool.
To further the discussion I recently conducted a roundtable interview with three women who have given this matter a great deal of thought. Jessica Milli, Jennifer Gottwald and Jane Muir. All three women are deeply involved with the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) movement, particularly as it relates to encouraging women and girls to pursue educational opportunities.
Dr. Milli is an economist with IWPR, and was the Director of the patent gender gap study. She on issues relating to equal pay, women’s business ownership, women’s poverty, and paid sick leave, including estimating access rates and the costs and benefits of such policies.
Dr. Gottwald is a Licensing Manager in the Technology Commercialization Department at the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF). She primarily works on licensing technologies in the fields of biotechnology, including research tools, diagnostics, drug targets and screening.
Muir is a former President of the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM), and is the Director of Florida Innovation Hub at the University of Florida, where she has held leadership roles in technology transfer for the past 20 years.
Without further ado, what follows is my roundtable discussion on women in STEM and the patent gender gap with Jessica Milli, Jennifer Gottwald and Jane Muir.
QUINN: Thank you, ladies for joining me today for this conversation. I wanted to chat with you to follow up the article that I published about the new report about the patent gender gap. It looks like over the last generation or so there’s been a lot of improvement, maybe even what you would call dramatic improvement, but we were starting with such a negative gap that it really is still quite a surprisingly large gap. So Jessica, I’d like to turn to you first because I know you work with the group that did the report — could you give us a summary of what the report says and what you think it really means?
MILLI: Sure. Basically our report is trying to bring together the research on various aspects of women’s participation in innovation and patenting particularly and really document this tremendous gap in patenting activity between men and women, figure out reasons why that patenting gap might exist, and then start to think about concrete solutions that we can pursue to help address the gap. And as you were mentioning, one of the big findings in the report is that even though we’ve seen tremendous progress in increasing women’s participation in the patenting process — women have more than quintupled their representation among patent holders since just 1977 — we still have only 20 percent of all patents having at least one woman inventor in 2010. So there’s a huge gap that exists within the patenting sphere and when you look at even more detailed data, looking at women as the primary inventor, for example, that gap increases even further and in 2010 we also find that only 7.7 percent of all patents listed a woman as the primary inventor. That number was kind of staggering, so we went a little further and looked at that trend over the last several decades and figured out, you know, if progress were to continue at the rate that it’s going, it would take until 2092 to reach parity in patenting. That would be a scenario where at least 50 percent of all patents had at least one woman inventor. So that number was very striking and I think that’s one of the more interesting and kind of troubling findings that came out of our report.
QUINN: Let’s stop there for a second, because I’d like to bring in Jane and Jennifer into the conversation. After I published the article about the patent gender gap report, I received a call from a patent examiner. This patent examiner has been an adjunct professor at the university level teaching various math and science courses for about 30 years. He also has several daughters. He told me that based on his perspective the problem isn’t with women, but rather it is with girls because they fall off the science and math path so early in the process for a variety of reasons — maybe stereotyping, maybe they’re steered in different directions — and I wanted to get your take that. Jennifer, what do you think about that? What can be done? I know you have a Ph.D. yourself and obviously you’ve pursued a science career, and I know a lot of women at WARF do as well, but that’s not the common experience, I guess.
GOTTWALD: No, I think that’s a good point, Gene, and I think it is something that hopefully all women in science and technology are aware of. There are still instances where you end up being the only woman in the room. And I think that we do recognize the need to not only encourage more girls in STEM fields, but to keep that going as they grow older through high school, through college, through graduate education, and also into their careers. I do want to emphasize though that in the work we’ve been doing with the AUTM Women Inventors Committee, we are finding that when the schools that are starting to measure their invention disclosure and their patent filings, again with at least one woman represented, even when they control for the percentage of female faculty members within a given department, for instance, they’re still finding that yes, there are fewer women represented but those fewer women that are represented are not filing as many invention disclosures as their male counterparts. So while we do need to concentrate on changing the culture and on making sure that girls and women are encouraged within these fields, we also have to, I think, for the sake of our economy, concentrate on women who are in these fields and are working and make sure that they also know about the patent process and find that accessible to them.
QUINN: So this goes beyond there being fewer women in math and sciences. This is a front end problem and it is a demonstrable back end problem also.
GOTTWALD: Yes, that is correct. I think different organizations are tackling this at different points but we do need to work on it all along that pipeline. The dearth of women in patenting and entrepreneurship cannot be explained completely by the lower numbers of women in STEM careers.
QUINN: Now, Jane, I know you were president of AUTM, and I know you’ve been very active in the group for a long time. So you’ve probably seen this from a number of different perspectives, not only at your own institution and not only with your own experiences, but across many institutions. If you could put your finger on what the problem is, what do you think is the biggest problem and how would you address that?
MUIR: Well, that’s a loaded question, right?
QUINN: Yeah, I guess so. Maybe “problem” isn’t the right word because I don’t want to suggest that anyone is to blame for this. I mean this is what it is and I don’t want to play a blame game. What I want to play, hopefully, is a solution oriented game, but to get to the solution I think we need to focus on where the biggest benefit is going to come from. That’s where I want to go.
MUIR: Yes. I guess, going back to something you said earlier, the reality is that there has been a significant increase in the number of women that are getting degrees in STEM fields but we are still proportionately underrepresented at all facets of the innovation life cycle and, I don’t think there is just one single thing that needs to be worked on, but I do think that programs focused specifically on inclusion are going to be an important component in that. There are a number of programs out there that, are encouraging technology participation, technology commercialization, participation in entrepreneurship but these programs, are not addressing some of the unique challenges that women encounter and so their ability to get women to participate has also been a challenge for them. Women don’t tend to self-associate as — as entrepreneurs. Women tend to think that if they’re going to file a patent, they have to have all the answers and so again, going back to something Jennifer said, the whole aspect of education about the patenting process and — and reaching out with more programs to encourage greater inclusion at all aspects of the innovation life cycle, I think are going to be very important if we’re going to move the mark.
QUINN: Now, Jessica, what do you suppose is the way to do that? I mean, obviously information is power and getting women the information about the patent system and the opportunities will probably go a very long way, but how do you do that?
MILLI: Also a tricky question to answer because again, there are so many factors at play that are keeping women out of the innovation ecosystem and the patenting ecosystem. I mean, obviously there needs to be sort of a cultural shift that takes place within the country to get people more used to the idea of women in science, women in innovation, and making that more normalized, because I think a lot of times young girls who are thinking about what they want to do for their careers when they grow up and are constantly hearing these messages like girls shouldn’t be in science, girls aren’t good at science, they don’t know how to do math, and things like that. And so eventually moving away from that culture and those stereotypes could go a long way.
QUINN: I would like to stop you right there and just make an observation from what I’ve seen. Yeah, there are plenty of girls and women that are not good at math or science, but there are also plenty of men that aren’t good at math and science too. I don’t think it’s helpful to have a stereotype and what I’ve seen in my own existence here in Northern Virginia, and I have a college age son, is some of the best and brightest students in the math and science field are women. I just think it does a real disservice to stereotype based on sex. Some people are not inclined to go down this path and there are some people that are inclined to go down this path and it strikes me that both race and gender play no role whatsoever in whether you have a brain that thinks in a STEM-like way or not.
MUIR: I would agree with that completely and I think it goes back to some of the stereotypes. I have two sons, both now through college, and the — they have dated some very bright young girls who tend to be on the perfectionist side. They believe that if they’re not getting As or B pluses in an engineering class or science, they then will tend to switch degrees because they want to be able to say you know, I’m doing well, I’m getting these As. Whereas my son in electrical engineering was perfectly happy to get a C in certain classes because he knew that’s what he needed in order to get his degree. So I think, yeah, sometimes that mindset of perfectionism definitely — which tends to be more inherent in women — gets in women’s way sometimes.
QUINN: That’s interesting.
GOTTWALD: I just wanted to say too, Gene, what we’re trying to do is look for solutions, not to blame somebody. I want to point out when we talk about stereotypes and these ideas it’s not, you know, the bad people who think that way. We all think that way. We all have implicit biases that come from our upbringing and the people we’re exposed to and what we’re hearing, and I think an important part of this is for everybody to step back and recognize, why do I think that way? Why do I expect that girl not to get as good of a grade, for example. We all have some of that within us. Women also have an implicit bias against women in these areas when they do tests. So it’s just a matter of a cultural shift and not handing out blame, but getting everybody to stop and think more carefully rather than going with maybe your gut reaction or what you see as the norm.
TO BE CONTINUED…