Women as Patentees

Patents are intended to lure potential inventors into the business of innovation.  The truth is, however, that very little is known about how patents really drive innovation.

Historically, only a very small number of women have obtained patents. Data from historic studies:

  • 1790 – 1895: About 1% were granted to women;
  • 1905 – 1921: About 1.4% were granted to women;
  • 1954: 1.5% of issued patents included women inventors;
  • 1977: 2.6% listed one or more women as inventors;
  • 1996: 9.2% listed one or more women as inventors.

Since patentees do not list their sex, all of these studies rely upon segregating inventors according to traditional first-names.

2006: In my own recent study, I looked at a sample of 150,000+ patents issued between 1999 and 2006.  I then made a list-ranking of first-names of first-listed inventors. Can anyone guess how many of of the top-100 inventor-names were traditionally female names???

Zero: None of the top 100 first-names are traditionally female names.  The first, “Susan,” does not arrive until 113 male names pass-by.

The Easy Potential Conclusion: Our patent system is not driving innovation amongst women to any significant degree.  A recent Science article teases this out in two-ways (with a focus on academic science): (1) there are more men than women working in scientific academic fields; (2) the men working science file patents at a much greater rate than do the women.

Query: What incentive would you suggest that would encourage more potential women inventors to enter the field? It may be more important to ask what barriers are in place today that work against women inventors.


55 thoughts on “Women as Patentees

  1. 55

    Good Afternoon Leo,

    Of course, one must take precautions; for example, this warning (too good to miss) was posted on the thread on which His Honor Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. “dissented” yesterday:

    Heeerre’s Johnny!, another “Carnac the Magnificent” you may like:
    link to johnnycarson.com

    And His Honor Holmes posted a not at all funny Result Oriented Decision follow-up today:

    link to patentlyo.com

  2. 53

    “maybe women just intuitively understand how evil patents are!”

    Maybe. Or maybe women are just always late. 14 months late in this case.

    (Sorry. I couldn’t resist. Does it help if I say that some of my best friends are women?)

  3. 52

    Perhaps only males are assholish enough to want patent monopolies? Patents don’t drive innovation, that’s a lie – patents exist to fight against the tendency towards free markets and dominate others. A patent is the “right” to stop other people doing something with their own property even if they know how do it – maybe women just intuitively understand how evil patents are!

  4. 51

    Since this post drew so many inane comments, I feel compelled to submit my own.

    Dennis wrote: “Since patentees do not list their sex, all of these studies rely upon segregating inventors according to traditional first-names.”

    Please, please, please quit using “sex” to mean “gender.” If applicants listed their sex it would be: “Straight,” “gay,” “lesbian,” “donkeys,” “dildos,” whatever.

    I know it’s technically correct and overwhelmingly pervasive to use “sex” to refer to “gender,” especially in the legal world. But that doesn’t excuse the obfuscation it causes. What does “sex discrimination” mean? Does it mean discrimination by straights against gays? No, but it should. It means discrimination by women against men, or (occasionally) vice versa. It means gender discrimination.

    Everyone join me in this “gender” jihad. Eliminate “sex” and go for “gender.” You’ll wake up feeling better, even if your mate continues to discriminate against you sexually. And on your next driver’s license application, there in the wee box that says “Sex:” write in the truth: “Almost never.”

    Let’s get America back on track.

  5. 50

    Refrain from your wild presumptions, Anonymous Woman. My comment implies nothing. It states what it states. Don’t confuse your own inferences with reality.

    I didn’t say girls don’t hone other skills. Yes, boys play with dolls. But why don’t they generally play with female dolls? If playing with dolls is simply an inborn expression of some sort of preparation for adult role playing, then why should girls naturally steer themselves toward playing predominantly with girl dolls.

    No matter. You seem to want to debate a point existing in your own mind, not mine.

    There remain patterns of behavior in human beings that defy learned adults’ willingness to alter. I don’t believe that there is any failure regarding science, math and so on.

    Boys and girls will choose what they want to choose, even in the absence of so-called harmful external stimuli. And these choices very often reflect differences in genetic makeup that science has yet to accuarately describe.

    I fail to understand the eagerness so many have to ascribe “failures” solely to gender biases.

  6. 49

    Aha! Realistic, your comment implies you believe in a connection between playing with dolls and failure in science/math/invention (or a dislike of it). What do you base this assumption on?

    Perhaps an affinity for dolls merely suggests an inborn need to prepare skills for getting along with others and for motherhood. That does not mean girls do not hone other skills in other ways such as sports, school, etc.

    Besides girls generally like other toys too. I played mostly with Hot Wheels (R)cars and Legos (R). And, boys play with “dolls” too. They are called “action figures” and “army men.” Boys may do different things with the “dolls” than girls but it is still all role playing. boys as well as girls have to do more than play with toys to prepare for a career in science and math.

    Challenge your assumptions.

  7. 48

    Studies have repeatedly shown that little girls will play with dolls, even after being “guided” to play with non-female related toys.

    Maybe some things are beyond institutional amendation.

  8. 47

    It’s well known that names are more concentrated among men than women – any large random sample of people, across cultures, is going to give you a list heavily tilted toward male names as the most common. Look up the stats for that and then compare the name concentration by gender among patentees versus among a general population, and that should provide some more relevant information.

  9. 46

    As a woman who received her degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering and is now studying law, there are many reasons why women choose not to pursue math-related fields that have nothing to do with the field itself.

    There are assumptions that women are accepted and encouraged once they reach the university level to achieve in these fields. In some cases, this is true. In others, it is difficult to find a lab mate. 18-year-old men are still 18, and they often do not understand that lab mate does not mean advances are welcome. (Before the question is posed, there were no other women in my sections to partner with. From the current numbers at my school, not much has changed.) TA’s, nearly always male, are more likely to sexually harass a female student by statistics. Given the numbers of professors from countries that do not encourage women to pursue careers, female students often find themselves the targets of subtle or overt discouragement from their chosen fields.

    There are very real reasons that women have support groups in their fields, as do minorities. Computer science is beginning to match numbers in men vs. women. But this upward trend means the bottom of the totem pole is filling, not the top. The average age of an inventor may reflect the university situation 10 or 20 years ago. The time lag may be valuable to confirm or compare to the numbers of women in the same age group in industry. Given the differences in corporate culture, it seems likely that some women may be encouraged to be named inventors while others have their contributions diminished so that someone else may receive a bonus. Without an in-depth look, it would be hard to determine.

  10. 45

    Student 1:
    “Dude, we’ve got to stop studying here in the engineering building. All the hot sorority girls are over in the arts and sciences buildings.”

    Student 2:
    “Definitely man…what a sausage party. Why did we choose this major, anyway.”

    Student 1:
    “I dunno, man. I think somebody mentioned something about high paying jobs or something. Either way, let’s dip out of here. We’ve got ladies to impress.”

  11. 44

    A few comments:

    1. It seems to me that most of the comments here are missing one of the main interesting points of the data: the dramatic increase in female inventors between 1954 and 1996 after the percentage stayed about the same for the previous 150 years. The limited data in the posting show no sign that this increase is leveling off. The increase is suggestively timed to coincide with both the availability of effective birth control and the women’s movement. It would be very interesting to get comparable numbers for 2006 to see whether the trend has continued(and I agree that Dennis’s approach using most common names isn’t really comparable).

    2. It seems unlikely to me that fooling around with things like non-gendered names will change the numbers much. 10% is pretty far from 50%. But looking at all inventors, rather than just first listed, seems very important, particularly if the order is sometimes determined by seniority.

    3. I get really ticked off by the suggestion that the small current numbers mean that women just don’t want to be inventors (or scientists) because they just naturally prefer not to innovate, don’t have “seclusive, independent thinking personalities,” don’t like math, aren’t good at math, etc. Give me a break, folks! It is simply way too early to tell whether any of these differences in “preferences” are “natural”. The percentage of women inventors went up by a factor of nearly four in just twenty years from 1977 to 1996! Major social change takes time. We have no idea what women will be doing in 50 or 100 years. However, history does suggest that previous notions about what women were just incapable of doing were simply wrong. So if I had to place a bet . . .

  12. 43

    Additional filters for the analysis should include the facts that 1) in the earliest period, most women did not publish anything under their own name and 2) in the current period, many women (as men) in biology/chemistry use only initials (the better to confuse the gender-biased).
    Since women are still – what – about 25% or less of engineering graduates, that accounts for the low pool/frequency of female inventors in the engineering-driven disciplines.

  13. 42

    One may learn alot about this entire topic by reading Camille Paglia. She is a neo-feminist who has spoken out against the quota system no matter the outcomes of doing so. Affirmative actions are demeaning to all involved, particularly in a society where the libraries are usually empty. Visit any nearby college and go first to the gymnasium and then to the library; ours is not a society in strong support of intellectual striving for any group.
    In my opinion the media could do a better job of showing thinking and problem solving as positive virtues outside of the venue of prime time crime dramas.

  14. 40

    Do you have any idea where can I find statistics of US patents, such as:
    what is the percentage of issued patents vs. abandoned and pending cases, and
    that sort of things ?

  15. 39

    AS an inventor with a couple of patents and three PPA’s filed for more innovations, I was struck many months ago during patent searches in various arts that relate to my field in the lack of women named as sole inventors. I will bring this matter up at Christmas dinner- I have 5 sisters- I like to move their blood through their veins a little faster once in a while- should make for a lively discussion. I will start the conversation though with the disclaimer ” Don’t shoot the messenger”.

  16. 37

    “That being said, I do think our society does not harness the creativity of women the way it should.”

    Agreed! Mrs. Mooney keeps a whip and handcuffs under the bed.

  17. 35

    Women tend to take less credit for their work. Many are satisfied to know they made a contribution and do not necessarily need their name in lights. Therefore, the lack of female names in the inventor listing on patents does not necessarily reflect a lack of innovation on the part of women. Women tend to be comfortable being viewed as playing a supportive role and, often, even when they take a leading role, they are still viewed as being in that supportive role.

    That being said, I do think our society does not harness the creativity of women the way it should.

  18. 34

    Dennis, nice post. I agree that “very little is known about how patents really drive innovation.” This is in fact why it’s so strange patent attorneys base their support of the patent system on the idea that it fosters innovation. I commented on your post on the Mises.org blog here link to blog.mises.org.

  19. 33

    Having 20 years in as a full service IP attorney- patents included – and 30% of those years at a Fortune 5 global corp, I’ve had a wide look at the many splendored world of creativity and business. Throwing about the term “innovation” seems to invite measuring some role in commerce and the attendant marketplace(s). A “patent”, absent more, is just a piece of paper with red ribbon & some wax (I date myself!) In the 90’s the USPTO published a report saying, in effect, that the forlornest folks are patent holders who have failed to make money. And the cause, the report concluded, was “inablility to work well with others.” Patentees are not all gifted in the panoply of skills necessary to “commercialize.” So, notwithstanding the popular press banality de juer of gender jargon, numbers associated with revenue generation are more meaningful when associating “intellectual property” to “innovation.” The growing numbers of other than XY types in the VC community is a number I’m watching. More post bubble companies with little in the way of IP other than mailing lists seem to be seizing their 15 minutes of fame. “Follow the money” is still a useful approach, and so is “play (well) with others.”

  20. 32

    I ran a small survey of patents issued to a former large telecom client of mine. I followed Judith’s suggestion of looking at all of the inventors, not just the first named inventor. 37% of the inventors were women, a number that I would guess roughly approximated the number of women in technical roles at the company. From my experience leading brainstorming sessions, I never noticed differences in the level of contribution between men and women. To me it seems possible that the issue of women inventorship is more an issue of women in technical roles, rather than women or men as inventors, per se.

    To Judith’s comment on women being more collaborative than men, I did find several patents with a sole male inventor, but no patents with a sole female inventor.

  21. 31

    I think Deborah got this one right. This is a pseudo-topic and it is rife with a notable lack of scientific method.

    Here’s another suggestion. Since women are notorious collaborators, check for the names of women among all named inventors on collaborative filings.

    Truth is, innovation tends to require a seclusive, independent thinking personality that is willing to buck the conventional thinking in favor of breaking new ground to achieve advances. Historically, these have not been the personality traits ascribed to women (see, collaborators above).

    Further, a lack of representation of women among inventors does not mean women are automatically excluded from the innovation process since there is plenty of facilitative work to be done all around in launching a new technology.

    Still further, the idea that we don’t know exactly what drives innovation is somewhat comical. What drives innovation is $$$ or the promise of $$$ as someone already pointed out. However, women are smart enough to realize that there are easier ways to make $$$ than slaving away in a lab for 20 years to bring us a funny little coherent red light or something, or a little piece of silicon that can conduct in one direction but not in the other…

    er, I mean, UGH.

  22. 30

    Malcolm wrote – “Strawmen come and go, but this one is notable for its amazing size and dryness.”

    Well done! Very nice line.

    As for patents driving innovation, I don’t need a weatherman to know which way the winds blow.

    Without patents, I’d estimate that most of the important heart/blood meds would not have been discovered/invented.

    Look at Phizer – they are starting a descent that was precipitated by several patents lapsing at about the same time.

  23. 29

    “Patents are intended to lure potential inventors into the business of innovation. The truth is, however, that very little is known about how patents really drive innovation.”

    I daresay that the patent system has a relatively modest effect on driving innovation. In my experience it is the prospect of $$$ that is the innovation engine. Where patents do help is in assisting the establishment of a market position in those situations where the patent covers an invention that actually has a real or perceived market.

    Even modest experience dealing with venture capital makes the above only too clear.

  24. 28

    “Don’t let the fact that the USPTO has a searchable database seduce you into thinking that it contains the answers to all of the world’s problems.”

    Strawmen come and go, but this one is notable for its amazing size and dryness.

  25. 27

    “The truth is, however, that very little is known about how patents really drive innovation.”

    If you don’t know what the connection is between patents and innovation then there is no point in drawing conclusions about innovation from patent statistics.

    The fact is that you don’t even know, and cannot show, whether on balance the patent system does more good than harm with respect to encouraging innovation.

  26. 26

    Before ascribing any meaning to the rankings given, I’d ask whether the names given girls and boys are equally diverse — that is, if there are more “traditional” names available for girls than boys, the percentage of female inventors having a particular name would necessarily be lower than the percentage of male inventors having a particular name.

    Since American business is conservative by nature, and given the relationship of patenting to business, and given the relationship of family ties to various businesses, one could also ask whether the pool of available male names would further be limited; female inventors might be less able to rely on nepotism and therefore generate a broader range of names.

    Indeed, a comparison of inventors’ names to popular childrens’ names might suggest that unusual names are a spur to unusual insights, yielding more inventors and inventions.

    To paraphrase Heinlein, you have to know what you’re measuring before you can draw any conclusions from the data you’ve obtained.

  27. 25

    Most patents are garbage, so the fact that a small percentage of the garbage belongs to women should lead us to ask what men could do to improve. I wonder if there is a similar breakdown among “real” patents.

    Don’t let the fact that the USPTO has a searchable database seduce you into thinking that it contains the answers to all of the world’s problems.

  28. 24

    There was an article in a scientific journal recently (last 4 months) – I think it was in Science. I believe the article noted a difference between the # or % of women patentees between academia and industry (industry was higher).

    Why does this matter? Because IF innovation drives our economy AND patents drive innovation THEN having ~ 50% of your population “automatically” not involved is problematic. This is coupled with what I would guess is a very small population of inventors/patent seekers already – 5% of the population? 10%? Anyone have any idea what percentage of the population ever seek even one patent?

  29. 23

    There are quite a few gender non-specific first names. Not only Lee and Kim, which are truly gender neutral, but some predominantly female, like Hillary and Shirley, and some that have slightly different male/female spellings like Marion/Marian (Mariann and Marianne are further female variations) or Francis/Frances or Robin/Robyn.

    In the latter category there are a lot of women with the male spelling of their names, which could be put down to parental ignorance until you realise that there are few or no men with the female spelling. Something else is at work here. Maybe the parents think (conciously or subconciously) that using the male spelling will enhance their daughter’s career prospects?

    There are also women with versions of usually male names that have a ‘feminine’ ending tagged on, like Michaela or Davida, but you don’t come across men called Vaness instead of Vanessa, for example.

  30. 22

    My anecdotal experience in the biopharmaceutical patent arena is that in that rea, a sizeable percentage – maybe even more than a marjority of U.S. inventors – are women. I agree that a breakdown by industry/patent technology area would be very interesting- especially if it reflected changes over time.

  31. 21

    Dick wrote, in reference to what he believed Dennis wrote:

    “I agree that it is not a numbers game and that we should “level the playing field and let them play” as you say.”

    Dick, Dennis didn’t write that – I did.

    The comment section, unfortunately, is very poorly designed, and the name that appears between the same two lines between which the comment appears is NOT the name of the poster, but rather it is the name of the poster of the previous comment.

    Dennis – Can you configure the comments section differently? It’s arduous.

  32. 18

    “The bottom line is that our patent system is not driving innovation amongst women.”

    Professor, you need at least 3 more qualifying clauses on this claim or you’re never going to survive academia. Try adding something like “compared to men” or “any less than it was 50 years go.”

    And remember:
    Broad, naked assertions based on a single patentee search = no tenure!

  33. 16

    While I do not have any ready information on the percentage of patents overall issued to independent inventors, it strikes me that the likely cause for the disparity has nothing to do with the patent system itself. Innovation is, I expect, largely driven by industry, which can best identify areas of need and subsidize research and development. On this assumption, I would expect the cause of your disparity between male and female inventors to be the traditionally male-dominated labor force. Even now, it seems to be the case that women are only just making significant inroads into the engineering/research-scientist workforce.

  34. 12

    Do you have nothing substantive to write about today? You whine that “our patent system is not driving innovation amongst women”. Who cares?

    What are you, some Alan Alda type?

    Save the liberal propaganda for your students at BU, Dennis.

  35. 11

    I agree with Malcolm Mooney regarding collaborative work and assertiveness, as a starting point, but how about the following issues:
    The first listed inventor means nothing, it’s all political. You really need to look at ALL inventors;
    How many of these were from foreign countries (from countries where women are either discouraged from working or from being scientists);
    Of those from foreign countries, how many women’s names do you know? Is “Lalima” in your dictionary, how about Léa (#1 in France AND Switzerland),
    What’s the percentage of women scientists in this country – if we have fewer women scientists, we should have fewer women inventors, without taking “incentive” into account;
    How about women entrepreneurs, same point.
    The patent system doesn’t work for men or women, it works for businesses, whether a huge corporation, or a sole inventor out to sell a better mousetrap.

  36. 10

    Dennis –

    Farag Moussa at the International Federation of Inventors Assocations has done work on women inventors for a number of years. See, link to invention-ifia.ch. They do have some interesting materials there, international in scope and in a number of languages. You will note that they have done some statistical work in a number of countries some years ago – with results similar to yours. He reports on a study done in 1990 by the U.S. Patent Office on a detailed report of the number of women inventors based on patent data for the period 1977 to 1988.

    I am not sure how active IFIA have been, however, in the past few years on this topic, but their work in this area is worth careful consideration.

    I agree that it is not a numbers game and that we should “level the playing field and let them play” as you say. Therein lies the rub in terms of the design of the field and access to it in the form of legal and other services. Much can and is being done there – but is another story. Dick

  37. 9

    Patents are a numbers game both in the Patent Office and Industry. The question is not numbers but significance.

  38. 8

    I wonder if a similar ranking were done with registered practitioners over similar time periods. My experience has been female associates seem to have a slightly higher number of female clients.

  39. 7

    Make sure that the opportunities to be a scientist and to pursue a patent are equally available to all, and then don’t worry about the proportions.

    I reject outright the concept that there should be a 50% proportion of women inventors. I reject outright the concept that any other number is the right number.

    Level the playing field, and then let them play.

    If we are so concerned about the numbers, then I suggest that we get right on the nurse/teacher/dental hygenist/55% female college entrance numbers, because those clearly need to be brought to a predetermined number that is closer to 50%.

    Interestingly, I worked in a Biotech group too, and it was about 8 women and 4 men.

    I’d suggest that biology attracts more females because it is virtually devoid of math, and a greater proportion of women does not like math – the reason that they don’t like math is another matter, of course.

  40. 6

    Technology Area: The PTO 1996 study indicates that patents in the “chemical” area are much more likely to include at least one female inventor as compared with “mechanical” and “electrical” patents.

    Teamwork: Although I have not run the numbers yet, I suspect that you are right that women are more likely to be part of a team of inventors than be an individual inventor.

  41. 5

    sounds like a Lawrence Summers type argument. Probably a deciding factor is the under-representation of women in academia and senior positions in industry which have the means to support the associated costs. I’d be curious if the numbers differ for provisional filings though.

  42. 3

    Maybe more women work in collaborative teams then men? In my expierience being the first named inventor is a position which tends to be determined by pushiness or alphabetical precedence much more frequently than by actual level of contribution. By only counting the first named inventor, you strongly favor those that worked alone, instead of in teams, and those that were pushy in teams.

    I’m curious how much this would change if you looked at all inventors’ names, not just the first named inventor.

  43. 2

    “Query: The 20–year exclusivity grant is not working for women. What incentive would you suggest that would encourage more potential women inventors to enter the field?”

    Lower filing fees for women.

    (That’s a joke for all you economist types out there)

    Your numbers are strikingly different from my personal experience, Dennis, but I’m working in biotech where there is (I believe) a much higher percentage of professional women than, say, nuclear physics, electrical engineering, or comp sci.

    It would be interesting to know whether the percentage of women inventors is higher in “traditionally” (i.e., stereotypically) “female-oriented” areas of invention, e.g., feminine hygiene products, diapers, cleaning methods, etc.

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