6 March 2020
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Sarah Kostiuk-Smith, Partner and European Patent Attorney at Mewburn Ellis, examines the glaring gender disparity in patent inventorship.

Last year, the United Kingdom Intellectual Property Office issued a report analyzing the number of female inventors named on patents around the world and the gender trends in inventorship over the past 20 years[1]. The report is welcome because it provides a picture of who is behind, or at least being credited with, commercial innovation around the world.

Patent applications are filed for research and developments that are judged to be potentially valuable, and patents are only granted after examination confirms that the invention is both new and non-obvious. Analysis of patent statistics therefore provides a measure of “output” from Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) organizations and careers, which in turn provides useful information about a field for which it is more common to measure “input”.

That is, most analysis focusses on the number of women studying science, beginning STEM careers and staying in the field. Analysis of what women do when they are working in the field is less common.

Of course, patent numbers cannot solely be used to quantify innovation, but considering the number of female inventors and the makeup of the inventor teams in which they are named is helpful in understanding the participation of women at the cutting edge of the STEM sector.

Historically, female inventorship on patents has been low; a recent report from the USPTO notes that only 72 US patents were credited to women inventors between 1790 and 1859. For context, in the same time period 32,362 US patents were awarded to men[2]. The situation, both in the US and elsewhere has improved markedly since then, but it will likely come as no surprise that significantly fewer female inventors are named on patent applications than men, and even in the larger countries with the highest proportions of female inventors (China and France), the number hovers around 15%.

Globally, the proportion of female inventors is estimated to be just under 13%.

This gender disparity is undoubtedly in part attributable to gender disparity in STEM careers: quite simply, fewer women study STEM subjects than men to higher degrees and that has a knock-on effect on who fills the research and development jobs that tend to underpin the inventions for which patent protection is sought. That is supported by the observation that women are better represented in biotechnology and pharmaceutical-related patents. Biology, Biochemistry and, to a lesser extent, Chemistry degree programs tend to have a higher proportion of female students than Physics, Engineering and Computing programs do.

However, even factoring in the gender disparity in employment, the figures for female inventorship seem low. Women account for just over 20% of the Core STEM workforce in the UK[3], but only 11% of inventors named on patent applications. This strongly suggests that women’s innovative potential is being under-utilized, but more detailed analysis is needed to try to understand why.

It is therefore vital to look more closely at where and in what capacity women are being acknowledged as contributors to patentable inventions, and the UKIPO’s recent data analysis is useful in this context. The proportion of worldwide patent applications which include at least one female inventor now stands at over 20%, but this is most commonly in mixed-gender teams in which women are outnumbered. It is often the case that there is only one woman on the larger team. Indeed, on those lone female teams, the mean average number of male inventors is 2.4. This general trend of lone females on larger teams holds true even in countries with higher female representation amongst patent inventors.

Aside from such mixed-gender teams, it is interesting to note that female-only teams are extremely rare, and the number of patent applications naming a woman as the only inventor is also low. By contrast, sole male inventors and all male teams are relatively common, accounting for about 32% and 40%, respectively, of worldwide patent applications between 2014 and 2017.

The inference is therefore that women are contributing to inventions as part of teams, rather than working independently to devise inventions, or perhaps rather than being given sole responsibility for research projects. Is this a consequence of the fields in which women work? Women are more commonly found in research roles in the pharmaceutical, cosmetic and biological sectors, which may typically require larger teams on longer terms projects than, for example, computer-based innovation.

Or is it suggestive that women are participating in all fields, but often in more junior roles than those held by more senior male colleagues?

The 2019 USPTO report “Progress and Potential: A profile of women inventors on U.S. patents” provides further useful breakdown with respect to US-based inventors, showing that the female inventor rates on patents granted to private businesses or firms is persistently the lowest. Women are more likely to be inventors on US patents granted to public or not-for profit organizations, accounting for just over 20% of inventors on US patents assigned to universities and hospitals, and 15% of inventors on US patents granted to public research organizations, but only 12% of patents granted to private businesses or firms in the last decade. This observation is supported by UKIPO data analysis, which found that the proportion of female inventors on patent applications made by universities between 1998 and 2017 was about 2.5 times that on patent application made by companies.

Why is this? Do these public or not-for-profit organizations offer more opportunities for women, as some have suggested, or is this symptomatic of the so-called “leaky pipeline”?

A recent report by UNESCO estimates that over 40% of PhD graduates in STEM subjects are female, but that less than 30% of so-called “researchers” are female. This is roughly on par with the estimated percentage of female workers in science and engineering occupations in the US in 2015, at about 28%[4]. In other words, although more than 50% of STEM undergraduates are women, the proportion of women decreases with career progression. Early career researchers are more likely to be female than senior researchers, and that holds true both in public institutions and in industry generally. This is referred to as the “leaky pipeline”.

It is not uncommon for PhD students and early career researchers to contribute to patentable inventions, and these contributions will typically be made at universities, research hospitals, and research institutions. This may indeed in part account for the observation in the US that women are more likely to be inventors on US patents granted to public or not-for-profit organizations than private businesses or firms - that those institutions have a higher proportion of inventors at a comparatively early stage in their careers. In other words, public or not-for-profit organizations tap into the pipeline where it is starting to leak, and a decent proportion of the female inventors named on patent applications make their inventions early in their careers.

Unfortunately, there is no way to determine this from the information provided for patent filings. All inventors are accorded equal status on a patent, such that no one inventor is given greater prominence or credit than another. Indeed, inventors are published in alphabetical order (something which is often queried by inventors more used to the occasionally heated discussions about name order on academic papers!). Similarly, neither the age of inventors nor their status within an organization can be determined from the patent information. As a consequence, it is not possible to determine if the female inventors named on patent applications are team leaders, or junior team members.

However, if in fact the number of female inventors does encompass high numbers of early career researchers, then the gender disparity in patent inventorship at more experienced levels within organizations may be worse than is thought, and that merits some attention.

It is clear that the number of women working in the STEM areas is increasing, as is the number of senior women. However, the 2019 USPTO report notes that while the number of patents with at least one female inventor has increased with greater female participation in the workforce, the rate of growth has slowed, suggesting a time-series structural break in 1998. Before 1998, the mean annual growth rate was 6.2%. Since 1998, it has plummeted to 1.9%.

This further supports the “leaky pipeline” theory: that women are leaving research and, even where continuing to work in the STEM industries, often transition to non-innovative roles. Various reasons for this have been proposed, including suggestions that women face more difficulties securing funding and accessing the social networks that can be critical to patenting and commercializing innovations[5], that women struggle to re-enter innovative programs after career breaks, and simply that career choices often take women into different, non-innovative roles, for whatever reason.

In truth, the answer is almost certainly a combination of myriad factors, and nurturing interest in STEM from a young age, providing opportunities and role models to encourage and enthuse people to work in and strive for innovation, and having systems in place to aid retention (fix that leaky pipeline, if you will) are all in my opinion important to prevent these so called “lost Einsteins” – people who would have had high-impact inventions had they become inventors – from being lost. As we look to address the challenges that the world faces, surely capturing everyone’s innovative potential is the least we should be trying to do.

This article was orginally published in The Patent Lawyer. Read the original article on pages 10-12 here.

[1] Gender profiles in worldwide patenting – An analysis of female inventorship, September 2019.

[2] Progress and Potential – A profile of women inventors on U.S. Patents, Number 2, February 2019.

[3] Women in STEM | Percentages of Women in STEM Statistics 2019.

[4] National Science Board | Science & Engineering Indicators 2018.

[5] Discussed with cited references in Progress and Potential – A profile of women inventors on U.S. Patents, Number 2, February 2019.

Sarah has extensive experience in the drafting and prosecution of patent applications, predominantly in the pharmaceutical sector but with a sizeable materials chemistry practice. Sarah also has both offensive and defensive opposition experience and defended several patents covering approved medicines in the EPO’s Opposition procedure. Sarah has a first class MChem chemistry degree from the University of Oxford and a PhD in organic synthesis from the University of Southampton. Her doctorate research focused on the total synthesis of natural products using radical-based approaches. She spent two years conducting postdoctoral research in Southampton, and has also undertaken a research placement with a pharmaceutical process chemistry team.

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