Women and patents: why we need to close the gender gap

Female scientistSometimes the grandest macroeconomic ambitions of a nation pivot on how effectively its legal system incentivizes innovation.

I know this firsthand. I have spent close to three decades as a lawyer working on patent issues, widely regarded as the heart of legal-economic frameworks for national and international innovation. I have analyzed and dissected the most arcane and complex aspects of this area of law, on behalf of clients all over the world. And for the most part, it has been an incredibly interesting and rewarding pursuit.

But recently, the subject has become dishearteningly personal.

In early 2016, a colleague and I decided to look into the topic of women inventors. We wanted to know how many there were, why they were drawn to inventing, and what, if any, barriers were keeping them from pursuing their dream of becoming an inventor.

One reason I became interested in this area was the wonderful and inspiring work of historian Zorina Kahn, whom I have had the pleasure of getting to know through my patent-rights work in Washington, D.C. Ms. Kahn has written extensively about the unique democracy of the U.S. patent system. Though there was a time when many women filed patents using only their initials — a clever method for disguising gender and guaranteeing their patents were judged on the merits — under federal law inventive women owned their patents even when the rest of their property legally belonged to their husbands. I challenge you to name another area of the law, business, or society for that matter, where women were so effectively treated as men’s equals.

But another and somewhat more depressing factor that drew me to this issue was the shockingly low number of patents being filed by women today. A new research paper by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research revealed that only 7 percent of “primary inventors” listed on U.S patents are women. You read that correctly: 7%. In fact, less than 20% of patents in 2010 included any women inventor at all. At this rate, the IWPR estimates it may be 2092 — 75 years — before the gap closes.

As a lawyer who cares deeply about the patent system, a professional woman, and a mother of a daughter and son who have both attended the U.S. Patent and Trade Mark Office’s (USPTO) Camp Invention, I was shocked by these findings. But I have also learned that necessity is the mother of invention and if I want things to progress more quickly, I have to get involved and get my like-minded colleagues in Washington involved.

To that end, I worked with the Innovation Alliance to host an event on Capitol Hill on December 1 to examine the role of women in patenting. We were joined by Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, IWPR Vice President and Executive Director Barbara Gault and Study Director Jessica Milli, Jennifer Gottwald from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, Jane Muir from the Innovation Hub at the University of Florida and Ami Patel Shah from the venture capital Fortress Investment Group. This esteemed group discussed steps we can take now to narrow the patent gender gap and expand economic inclusivity — steps that increase U.S. innovation and leadership. Here are some of their key recommendations:

  • Encourage women to invent from an early age through exposure in the classroom to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
  • Educate women on the vast number of opportunities open to individuals with STEM degrees — in other words, you don’t have to become a math teacher.
  • Help women build networks to increase access to industry contacts and investment.
  • Encourage and empower women to pursue patent rights.
  • Ensure that the U.S. patent system remains strong and inclusive (i.e., policies that weaken the rights of inventors may disproportionately impact women and other underrepresented groups).

Michelle Lee, Director of the USPTO and the first woman in history to run that agency, is also laser-focused on this issue. At her swearing in ceremony, Director Lee spoke about the importance of bringing more women into the technology and investment firms that serve as the backbone of our economy. Later, at a conference in Texas, she told an audience, “I am not advocating for women and girls because I am a woman. I am advocating for women and girls because I understand that we cannot succeed in the global economy with, in effect, one hand tied behind our back.”

Director Lee knows perhaps better than anyone just how much is at stake. According to a recent U.S. Department of Commerce report, IP-intensive industries support more than 45 million jobs in this country and contribute more than $6 trillion to our gross domestic product. But imagine the additional economic opportunities and value we could unleash if women, who make up 50% of the population, were fully participating in the invention ecosystem. What would the world be like if there were as many Grace Hoppers as there are Vint Cerfs or Robert Kahns?

We have known for decades that economies grow when the women in them work (see The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) work on the subject, for example). The more that women find ways to contribute their ideas and inventions to the economy, at a rate that at least equals their numbers as half the American population, the better off our country and the world will be.



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5 comments so far.

  • [Avatar for Gentry McLean]
    Gentry McLean
    December 14, 2016 09:04 pm

    My goodness, Ms. Self, you do seem to have struck a nerve with some folks! For those patents granted to employees of large companies (I would expect that’s a fairly large percentage of the total, though I don’t know the number), the low fraction of women as inventors probably reflects the low fraction of women in technical positions at those companies. In my experience, women with children often end up leaving professional positions of all types once they figure out that these positions are effectively designed for the rewarding, retaining and promoting of either childless people or people with wives at home.
    For patents granted to entrepreneurs, some of the gap may relate to funding, since obtaining patents presents a significant cost to small enterprises. I have read that in the case of venture capital, at least, women have disproportionate difficulty in obtaining funding.

  • [Avatar for Eric Berend]
    Eric Berend
    December 9, 2016 01:28 pm

    @ 4. ‘Judy’:

    “Got it, in one”!

    At the dawn of the so-called “second wave” of the ‘Women’s Liberation’ social movement that became renamed “feminism”, Simone Beauvoir and Betty Friedan both made assertions that amounted to ‘we have to take the easy choice of husband, family and children away from women in general; because otherwise, they will never make a different choice for their own lives’.

    Imagine that: no MAN better EVER DARE “tell a woman what to think and do”, but when it’s a woman or cabal of conspiring women, that magically doesn’t apply: “they know better, what’s good for all those women – better, than they know for themselves”.

    Gloria Steinem railed quite successfully against marriage her whole professional (and CIA, Ford- and Rockefeller-foundation supported) and societally distructive career; yet, at age 65, what did she do? Marry – to a powerful, wealthy man.

    The whole modern history of the conduct of the social engineering movement known these days as “feminism” is rife with false evidence, revisionist histories and so-called ‘science’ defined by mere sentiment. They “know what’s right and best” for everyone else – and, they’ll be damned if they’re going to let facts get in the way.

    Yet, it is a routine ‘inside joke’ among those in “the Movement” that while – according to them – EVERY PERSON is ‘purely’ socially constructed, males are impaired by “testosterone poisoning” (notice: NEVER the respectful linguistic construct of “men and boys”). The sheer cognitive dissonance espoused here makes the head hurt; unless, you are one of those people who see the world in such distorted, sexist, man- and boy-hating ways.

    These forces have allied with those of the communitarian exploiters such as Facebook, Google, et al, with such deplorable effect, as to have Committees of U.S. Congress, meeting to hear testimony for the record upon a Bill proposing to radically alter some 200 years of U.S. patent law jurisprudence, eschew inviting any actual inventors! Such banal and inapppropriate exploitation includes inviting Mark Zuckerberg to topically authoritative fora as a so-called “expert on privacy issues”; and similarly, without any principled advocate on the other side of the debate about this essential issue.

    Can you say “RIGGED”?! These machinations are transparently phony and manipulative, to those of us with some degree of critical thinking capability; but to the ‘average online consumer’, provide a veneer of legitimacy to their own overweening expectations of said exploits in their (largely unconscious) favor.

    For the rest: while the ‘entirely socially constructed’ canard makes for ready power grabs, exploits and abuses; chivalry and traditional notions of marriage and pair bonded relationships continue to affect expectations of personal behavior and conduct, to these communitarian exploiters’ benefit; including those of ‘feminism’, and ‘social media’ sellers.

  • [Avatar for Eric Berend]
    Eric Berend
    December 9, 2016 12:52 pm

    This social engineering is a bunch of hypocritical hogwash, with little place in applied science or engineering; and I am not afraid to call it out as the BS, that it truly is.

    Not mentioned here, are the many distortions imposed upon children and adolescents – those who are entrusted to “the system’s” care in education – in the name of an abstracted, anti-nature concept of communitarianism that insists that “it takes a village”.

    These notions have taken such a head of their own, that it is now proposed in progressive educrat circles to prohibit boys from raising their hands first, when a class is presented with a question from a teacher.

    These precepts powered the wholesale ‘rip-and-replace’ nationwide social engineering of grade-, middle- and high-school curricula at the behest of an UNPUBLISHED 1992 report of the AAUW (American Association of University Women); in which, postulating about their own mere speculation, it was asserted that girls are “silenced” in the school environment going into their teenage and “preenie” years; such that, for example: since 1988 in the New York City public school system, literature offered as part of course requirements is prohibited from portraying a male in a leading, exploring, or commanding role, in any story whatsoever. I am not making this up.

    And, there can be little dispute that applications of Federal Title IX considerations against ONLY MEN”S PROGRAMS of mostly sports in colleges across the U.S., has had a real-world ‘chilling’ effect on young men’s enrollments, but this zealous charge of such willing purpose is strangely absent, when it comes to applying ‘Title IX’ to the Drama and Theatre courses which are routinely and universally populated at 70 – 80% female, in these selfsame institutions.

    The whole rotten mess amounts to a mere sexist power grab by those: who have revised histories with lies; shouted down any principled opposition; and, typically assume a large enough crowd of sentiment is sufficient cause to abrogate the American Revolution; in whatever form or manner is favorable and convenient for them.

  • [Avatar for Night Writer]
    Night Writer
    December 9, 2016 09:48 am

    The best thing to do is enforce rules. If people are acting like sexist make them pay. The current way of trying to change things of blaming white males and pumping money into women and minorities is breaking our society.

  • [Avatar for Judy]
    December 8, 2016 04:20 pm

    The “gap” will never “close”. This is because a huge lot of women choose, voluntarily, despite feminist’s wishes, to stay home and chill and make home hearth and family. This is so that there will be a pleasant life for all, and so that there will actually be a next generation. No amount of effort should be expended in this area trying literally to make life less comfortable for women and for men and children alike. Especially in this overtly sexist way. Society has already bent over completely around backwards to try to make this “gap” “close” along with other “gaps” that feminists see, and women as a whole are less happy for it. Just say no to anti-women efforts by the left.

    ““I am not advocating for women and girls because I am a woman. I am advocating for women and girls because I understand that we cannot succeed in the global economy with, in effect, one hand tied behind our back.””

    The one hand is not “tied behind our back” doing nothing, it is otherwise occupied making homes and families. And on occasion doing what work it will.