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9 March 2023

Gender Equality in Patenting

Gender equality in patenting

A recent EPO report analysed European patent application data, providing an insight into the activity of women inventors. The report highlights some positive trends in increasing women inventor rates, however it is clear that there is much more scope for improving gender equality in patenting.

The report indicates that in the late 1970s, the percentage of women inventors at the EPO was incredibly low at just 2%. This percentage, or “women inventorship rate” has improved remarkably since then, and stood at 13% in 2019.  However there is clearly still a huge gender gap in inventorship.

One of the key findings of the report is that the gender gap in inventorship is much larger than the gender gap in other economic and scientific activities. In the workplace overall, between 40 and 50% of the workforce are women for most European countries. The data goes on to indicate a “leaky pipeline” for women in STEM.  The number of students enrolled in a PhD largely reflects the overall workplace. The percentage of women graduating with a PhD in STEM is generally lower than the percentage of women in the workforce or enrolled in a PhD. Similarly, the percentage of women researchers, women in R&D, and managers is generally lower than the percentage of those graduating from a PhD, showing a level of attrition of women progressing through STEM careers. However, a much bigger drop is seen for the women inventor rate in all those European countries. It is clear therefore that the women inventorship rate is not reflective of the percentages of women in scientific careers.

The report also illustrates how women’s inventive activity differs depending on the technical area. Although all areas are showing promising improvements in women inventorship rates, “Chemistry” has a consistently higher women inventorship rate over the last 30 years (increasing from 11.9% to 22.4%) compared to other fields, with “Mechanical Engineering” at the opposite end of the scale with the lowest women inventorship rates (increasing from 2.4% to 5.2%). The variation between technical area is likely to be reflective of women’s education and career choices, where women are more frequently involved in fields such as biotechnology and pharmaceuticals (both included within “Chemistry” for the purposes of the EPO report). More could therefore be done to actively encourage women to embark on careers in other scientific fields and in engineering, which could help to balance out the difference in women inventorship rates between different fields.

Impact

A consequence of the gender gap in inventive activity is that breadth and inclusivity of technology is reduced. The EPO report cites research analysing US biomedical patents which showed that for women, their patents are more likely to focus on women-specific health problems and men more likely to focus on men-specific ones. Reducing the gender gap in inventive activity may therefore help to drive a reduction in the gender health gap as more solutions specific to women are developed.

The theme for International Women’s Day 2023 is Embracing Equity. Embracing Equity in STEM might involve acknowledging the barriers faced by women in the workplace, and taking positive action to address those barriers. Such action might take the form of more active encouragement of women into STEM careers, highlighting more female role models, and actively seeking to recruit women into STEM roles.  Within the workplace, those barriers may be addressed generally by tackling unconscious bias, for example. Where women are primary caregivers, barriers may be addressed by offering flexible working, normalising and supporting part-time work and offering supportive maternity and paternity policies. Attracting and retaining women by focusing on the barriers within careers in STEM and embracing equity may therefore help to improve the numbers of women moving forwards to inventive activity and have a positive impact on the innovations resulting from the workforce.

Katherine Dainty

 

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