Guest Post: Why Do Women Face Challenges in the Patent Process?

By: Abhay Aneja, Assistant Professor of Law, University of California, Berkeley, Diversity Pilots Initiative Researcher, Gauri Subramani, Assistant Professor in the Department of Management, College of Business, Lehigh University and Diversity Pilots Initiative Researcher, and Oren Reshef, Assistant Professor of Strategy, Washington University in St. Louis.  This post is part of a series by the Diversity Pilots Initiative, which advances inclusive innovation through rigorous research. The first blog in the series is here, and resources from the first conference of the initiative are available here.

About 86% of all patent applications are submitted by men or all-male teams. This underrepresentation of women gets worse as the patent approval process runs its course. In other words, patent applications from women and teams with higher female representation are less likely to convert into granted patents. Why is this happening?

An essential feature of the patent process is that it is highly iterative, so rejection occurs often, as the figure below of the evaluative trajectory of patent applications shows.  While over 80% of applications face rejection, it is crucial to note that rejection does not necessarily indicate the impossibility of moving forward with that invention. Applicants can respond to rejections and continue in the patent process. However, research indicates that female patent applicants are less likely to follow up after rejection, contributing significantly to the lower conversion rate of applications to granted patents.

A potential approach for overcoming female tendencies not to push forward or fight in response to rejection relates to whether the patent applications are affiliated with attorneys or firms. When applications are affiliated with firms, the process is typically managed by patent committees comprised of specialized experts, such as patent attorneys, who have lots of experience determining whether proposed ideas can be patented. Not only can these experts craft applications strategically, but they can also manage communications with patent examiners. For instance, they may help with responding to a rejection.

Although it is no surprise that both men and women benefit from the support of patent professionals, interestingly, female applicants derive much more significant gains than men from firm and attorney affiliations. This suggests that access to information and financial resources provided by firms and attorneys is particularly valuable for female patent applicants, potentially compensating for lower response rates to rejection and the other barriers women commonly face before applying for a patent (e.g., limited professional networks). However, the proportion of male inventors affiliated with firms or attorneys is higher than that of female inventors.

The underrepresentation of women in the field of innovation has far-reaching implications for our society. We are losing the opportunity to benefit from valuable contributions and perspectives just as much as the underrepresented population in innovative activities. From a macroeconomic perspective, this is a significant loss of potential economic growth. However, while the underrepresentation of women hurts society overall, it hurts women the most.

Research demonstrates that women are more likely to develop innovations that serve the needs of other women. For instance, the first disposable diaper was created by a mother, who herself was exposed to the issue many other women also face. Therefore, if female inventors are underrepresented, women more broadly are underserved because the innovations that may serve women’s specific needs are less likely to exist. Also, participation in innovation leads to individual-level benefits. Patents enable inventors to commercialize their inventions, benefit from increased wages, and enhance their employability. Women are obstructed from the opportunity to have access to these tangible pecuniary benefits.

The underrepresentation of women in the patent process is a critical issue that needs our attention. It is easy to think that women who apply for patents are probably more resistant to negative feedback because they’re already a highly self-selected group who have persisted in their endeavors against many obstacles. However, this is not necessarily true. A robust body of research illustrates that demographics are important in career choices and trajectories. Children born into the wealthiest 1% of society are ten times more likely to be inventors than those born into the bottom 50%. Female college graduates are much less likely to transition to STEM jobs. Even if female students eventually enter those fields, female academics and scientists are less likely to patent than male academics and scientists, partially due to their limited professional networks.

Also, the small proportion of women who do end up participating in innovation are often disadvantaged by biased evaluations of their accomplishments and capabilities as compared to similarly qualified men. These hurdles throughout the process inhibit women from becoming scientists or participating in innovation. It is crucial to address these challenges at each stage of the pipeline with interventions such as providing better access to information and free legal representation. By recognizing and tackling these obstacles, we can foster a more inclusive and supportive environment for women in innovation.

Measures such as improving access to information, providing free legal representation, and dismantling gender biases in evaluations can advance diversity in innovation. More representation of women in the field will not only foster economic growth but also lead to innovations that cater to the diverse needs of our world. I urge you to join our efforts to support women and bridge the gender gap in innovation.

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