by Marra Clay, guest blogger and J.D. Candidate at the University of Minnesota Law School
In 1793, Hannah Wilkinson Slater received a patent for creating a new method of producing cotton-sewing thread. She is often celebrated as the first female inventor to receive a U.S. patent. Slater was one of only 72 women to get a patent between 1790 and 1859, compared to 32,362 men who obtained patents during that time. Though female inventors have gained more recognition since then, they are still vastly underrepresented.
In February of 2019, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) published Progress and Potential: A profile of women inventors on U.S. patents, which highlighted the consistently low representation of female inventors and the untapped potential of women in U.S. innovation. The study defines the women inventor rate as “The percentage of unique [United States-residing] inventors with a patent granted in a given year that are women.” The report found that, though women are gaining more patents, the women inventor rate reached only 12% in 2016.
Women are very slowly obtaining more patents, but often as part of a mixed-gender team of inventors, rather than independently or as part of a female team.
An analysis of USPTO data since 1976 shows that women have steadily obtained more and more patents. However, there is a large discrepancy between patents with at least one female inventor, and the women inventor rate. In 2016, about 21% of patents had at least one woman on the team, which is a strong increase from the only 8% in the 1980s. But, much of this growth happened in the 1980s and 1990s; since 1998, this percentage has only increased by 5%, suggesting that the increase in women inventors has slowed.
Even though there are more inventor teams that include women, the total number of women inventors has not significantly grown. The women inventor rate was just 10% in 2000, and grew to only 12% by 2016. There is a growing gap between the proportion of mixed-gender teams and the overall women inventor rate.
The study noted, “Women are increasingly likely to collaborate with other inventors rather than patent alone and more likely to participate on teams of four or more inventors.” In the last decade, all female invented patents constituted only about 4% of issued patents. Accordingly, the growth in women inventorship, as measured by the share of patents with at least one female inventor, is almost entirely due to women’s participation on gender-mixed teams.” The study also stated that gender diversity on mixed-gender teams has in fact decreased steadily since the early 1980s. Though there are more mixed-gender inventor teams, there are less women on those teams.
Women are less represented in patents than they are in the science and engineering fields.
It would be easy to assume that women are poorly represented in patent ownership because of the consistent lack of women in the science and engineering fields. But, the USPTO report notes that women are in fact less represented in patents than they are in those fields. The report states, “Across nearly all science occupations, women participate at a much higher rate than they invent patented technology.” In 2015, women comprised 28% of the scientific and engineering workforce, but still only 12% of patents. Within biological and life sciences, where women are almost fully represented at 48% of the workforce, they still only contributed to 25% of biological patents and 23% of pharmaceutical patents.
Women are most represented in chemistry and design patents, and the least represented in mechanical engineering.
“Overall, women inventor participation is improving. However, trends suggest that women are specializing in technology fields and sectors where female predecessors have patented before rather than entering into male-dominated fields or firms,” notes the report.
Mechanical engineering, where inventors are the most predominately male, has had the slowest growth in female inventors (only 8% in the last decade). In contrast, fields such as biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, and organic fine chemistry have stronger female representation, with the women inventor rate consisting of 25%, 23%, and 21%, respectively.
Women are most represented by universities and hospitals, and least represented by business organizations.
In addition to the technological field, the women inventor rate also greatly varies by the patent assignee type. The number of women inventors on patents granted to universities and hospitals was only 7% in the 1977-1986 decade, but has grown within the last decade to just under 20%. In contrast, the women inventor rate on patents granted to business firms is the lowest, climbing from 4% in the 1977-1986 decade to only 12% recently. These inventor rates are consistent with the results of prior studies, which found that women are more likely to be inventors on patents granted to public or not-for-profit organizations because they offer more opportunities to women than private firms.
The USPTO study also calculated the number of women inventors at select top patent assignees in the 2007-2016 range. Proctor & Gamble Co. had the highest women inventor rate at 29%, while IBM had the largest women patent inventor workforce (over 4500 women). In contrast, women were the least represented in largely mechanical and electrical engineering technology, such as Deere & Co with a women inventor rate of only 4%.
On July 21, 2020, the USPTO released an updated study which boasted that “the number of women entering and staying in the patent system is at an all-time high.” However, the key findings demonstrate that the number of women inventors, though higher than ever before, has barely increased since the prior study. The overall women inventor rate grew from 12.1% in 2016 to 12.8% in 2019.
At this growth rate, it will be several decades before women inventors are equally represented. Though any improvement is a step forward, it should be noted that 41% of the women inventor-patentees are located in just four states: California, Massachusetts, New York and Texas. According to the updated USPTO report, a handful of states actually saw a decrease in the average women inventor rate. Though the number of women receiving patents is at an all-time high, that success is not equally distributed.
Resources for Women Inventors
There are several professional organizations dedicated to supporting women inventors. Founded in 2005, the nonprofit organization ChIPs connects women in technology, law, and policy. According to ChIPs’ mission statement, membership is open to members of the public and private sectors, intellectual property attorneys, innovators, and those who wish to participate in lawmaking, policymaking, judicial advocacy and innovation processes, and anyone who shares its mission. Several of the women attorneys at Patterson Thuente IP are involved in the newly formed Twin Cities Chapter of ChIPs.
Additionally, the International Federation of Inventors’ Association has a department called the Women Inventors Network. The objective of the organization is to encourage inventor associations to develop activities of interest to women inventors, develop cooperation among women inventor associations, highlight and recognize the create power of women, and to motivate women and girls to participate in the fields of science and technology.