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Gender Diversity and Disparity in US Innovation

By June 30, 2020No Comments

Andrei Iancu, Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the USPTO, kicked off AUTM 2019 with a fireside chat. The same week, the USPTO published Progress and Potential: A profile of women inventors on U.S. patents. Together, they provide a deeper look into gender diversity—and disparity—in US innovation.

In the global contest to be innovation leaders, the US, “cannot compete with one hand tied behind our backs,” says Iancu. The US has work to do if it wants to remain a driving force on an increasingly crowded playing field. Iancu warns, “We need… all hands on deck… The engagement of women in innovation, for example, is not where it needs to be, by a significant margin.”

As Iancu puts it, “We are leaving a lot of Einsteins on the table. It is critically important for the United States to focus on that.” Many of these Einsteins are women. Progress and Potential presents quantitative data supporting Iancu’s concerns about underutilized brilliance.

The report begins with a noteworthy statistic: between 1790 and 1859, “only 72 U.S. patents were credited to women inventors… while men obtained 32,362 patents.” Even more important for gender diversity and innovation today is the report’s focus on patents on which women were named as inventors between 1976 and 2016.

Researchers identified three metrics by which to assess women’s participation in patenting:

  • Women inventor rate, or the percentage of unique women inventors with granted patents in a given year.
  • Patents with at least one woman inventor.
  • Women’s share of total patenting as part of a team in which credit is evenly distributed.

Overall, the report documented impressive growth in each of these categories from 1978 and 1997. This dramatic uptick may simply be due to the increase in women entering the workforce and pursuing advanced degrees. Between 1998 and 2016, progress toward gender diversity in innovation was much slower. During this time period, “the share of patents with
at least one female inventor has only increased from 15% to 21%.”

Progress and Potential indicates that the number of women in the science and technology workforce has grown, yet the number of independent women inventors is incongruently low. Further, modern women workers have a higher rate of entrepreneurship than patent ownership. This data demonstrates that women are assets in the country’s race to lead global innovation. What is thwarting their progress in intellectual property specifically?

The report discusses many potential causes of this slowed growth. In general, women inventors:

  • Experience more difficulty securing funding,
  • Lack critical social networks,
  • May be geographically disadvantaged,
  • Specialize in a limited number of technological fields,
  • Are more involved in not-for-profit and public research, where funding may be less accessible, and
  • Contribute to inventive teams, as opposed to patenting independently.

The data that supports the soft spot Iancu addressed is impactful and we encourage you to read the full report. It’s facts and figures leave us to question: why does this gender disparity remain in innovation and how can we amend it? Because if the US plans to dominate in the field of innovation, we need a diverse roster.

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