Women, and especially women of color, patent inventions at much lower rates than men, which means that innovations to improve technology, treat illness, and improve everyday life are being left on the table. A recent study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that under 20 percent of all U.S. patents list one or more women as inventors, and just under eight percent list a woman as the primary inventor.  At the current rate of progress, men and women will not reach parity in patenting for over three quarters of a century—in the year 2092. 

Policymakers should work to ensure that funding to support women and people of color in STEM fields remains strong and that as a nation we hold ourselves accountable for equal access to opportunity in innovation.

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Part of the issue is women’s underrepresentation in patent-intensive science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields, such as engineering and computer science.  In 2010, women held just 19 percent of engineering degrees and 21 percent of computer science degrees.

Encouraging gender diversity in patent-intensive fields—both in academic and industry settings—could unlock a wealth of innovation.  Our study found that patents secured by inventor teams that included both women and men are cited more often in other patent applications than single-gender teams.  Including women on an R&D project can lead to higher quality, more useful patents. 

Closing the gender gap in patenting would promote women’s entrepreneurship and benefit the U.S. economy overall.  Over 35 percent of all businesses in the United States are women-owned, but only three percent of venture capital funding went to women-led businesses between 2011 and 2013. Nearly three-quarters of venture capitalists have reported considering an entrepreneur’s patent stock when making funding determinations.  Patent ownership can signal investors that the quality of the entrepreneur’s project is high.

IWPR’s report makes several research-based recommendations to help close the gender gap in patenting.  First, we suggest that employers can help women pay for the costs of patent applications which can reach over $15,000 in attorney’s fees.  Because women, on average, earn less than men, and have less access to venture capital, the cost of pursuing a patent in the first place creates a significant barrier to entry.

We recommend supporting efforts that encourage the inclusion of women and girls in STEM fields at all stages of education and careers, as well as in patent-intensive subfields, and companies that specialize in these areas.

Finally, research suggests that helping to expand women’s professional networks is essential to closing the patent gap.  Access to industry contacts in the private sector is among the most important factors in women’s patenting and entrepreneurship.  Employers and others with access to high-powered professional networks are in a unique position to draw women into their circles and develop lasting professional relationships that expand the ranks of women inventors and entrepreneurs. 

We have more research to do on the obstacles women inventors and entrepreneurs face in the marketplace.  We have more work to do to promote parity in STEM education and STEM employment.  And we have more work to do to ensure that women have the resources they need to succeed in these fields.  As we create new technologies to harness energy, discover new cures for diseases, or develop the next generation of wireless devices, women must join men on equal footing in building and sustaining the innovation into the future. 

Barbara Gault is Vice President and Executive Director of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.