When hearing the word inventor most people think of a man. While it is true that the majority of inventors are men, there are certainly also women who have made ground-breaking innovations, despite the fact that explicit and implicit obstacles have prevented women from entering the scientific and engineering professions.
Throughout history, people of both genders have devoted themselves to activities such as farming, constructing buildings and roads, making tools and rearing animals, in order to obtain life necessities and decent living conditions.
The well-known proverb, "necessity is the mother of invention", recognises that people invent things because in their daily activities they encounter technical problems which need to be solved.
So why is it that throughout history, women have not been commonly recognised as inventors? Have women not participated in technological activities?
Women as inventors in history
In prehistoric and early agrarian societies, chores were sharply divided between the sexes, with women traditionally being responsible for gathering and processing food, manufacturing textiles and clothing, and taking care of children and the elderly. For unclear reasons, the chores assigned to women have been considered less technical than traditional male agricultural chores even though many of the responsibilities assigned to women led to the development of tools and methods for making everyday life easier. Although not possible to prove, many historians agree that it is probable that a number of important early technical achievements should be attributed to anonymous female inventors. In order to survive, it was necessary to develop skills in identifying potential food crops, to develop tools for cultivating crops, and methods for preserving perishable foods. Among other things, the tasks of manufacturing clothing and preparing hides involved the development of preservation processes for animal skins and methods and equipment for obtaining and processing fibres such as wool, flax and cotton.
If it is assumed that women have an inventive capacity which is at least on par with that of men, and considering that in the early days of human economic development women were exposed to a vast number of very different technically demanding tasks in their daily life, it is not unlikely that women were, indeed, the first technologists. In light of this, why are there so few celebrated female inventors? The likely answer is that there have, indeed, been many great female inventors; it is simply that history has not recorded them.
Why have women traditionally held fewer patents than men?
In modern times, obtaining patents is often seen as proof of inventiveness, and it is a fact that women apply for and hold far fewer patents than men. Many momentous discoveries of practical value which have been made by women have been creative, though not always recognised as inventions. Innovative activity is difficult to measure, but one way of gauging inventiveness is through patenting activity. During the preceding two centuries, patents have therefore been used as a means of measuring creativity. However, for female inventors, creative activity which has clearly been of an inventive nature, has not been reflected in the patent records to the same degree as for men. For example, during the first 200 years after the United States Patent Office was instituted, only about 2% of patents were granted to women. In Britain and most other developed nations except for the former Soviet Union, the situation was the same or worse. Why is it then that women hold so few patents?
Although not possible to prove, many historians agree that it is probable that a number of important early technical achievements should be attributed to anonymous female inventors
A simple reason is that patents cost money and that women had, and still have, fewer economic resources than men.
Another reason is that until the end of the 19th century when the Married Women's Property Acts were passed, women in the USA and England were not allowed to own property, including intellectual property, on equal terms with men. As patents are a form of intellectual property, many women, especially married women, lacked the economic power or legal rights to make or market an invention in their own name. Instead many processes and products developed by women were publically credited to a husband, a father, a brother or a male partner, making women's contributions to technological progress invisible in the records of history.
A further reason may be a self-image problem. In the 19th century and to a certain extent even today, many women hesitate to claim credit for achievements because to do so would be considered immodest or presumptuous. Social pressure against independent thought or action and against personal publicity forced women to renounce their ideas, thereby losing all credit for them. The spectacular success of a few women as inventors of new mechanisms or new processes and substances did not, until recently, change prevailing disbelief in the creative abilities of women. The public perception has been that successful female inventors are rare exceptions and that most women are not capable of inventing. A woman who has internalised the cultural stereotype that women are not inventors may not even recognise that her own original idea is an invention or that it might be patentable.
A further reason why there are so few female patentees in history may be that women historically have been under-represented in engineering sciences, both in academia and in the profession of engineering. There are multiple reasons for this, one being cultural stereotyping which is based on religious and political ideas and which has been institutionalised through educational and social systems throughout the world.
In the 19th century, the few women who participated in engineering work came from the upper class and were often privately trained in mathematics or science. In the early years of the 20th century, although greater numbers of women were admitted to engineering programmes, they were generally looked upon as anomalies by the men in their departments. Over the past 100 years, limitations have lifted, and doors (and minds) have opened. Women's roles in the workforce, specifically in the engineering fields, changed greatly during the period after World War II. As women started to marry at a later age, have fewer children, divorce more frequently and became less dependent on husbands for economic support, their representation in the engineering labour force increased despite the fact that their salaries were lower than those of men.
Since the feminist revolution of the 1970s, the opportunities available to men and women in higher education have become broadly similar in most advanced economies. Today's women are far more represented in many technical fields and the percentage of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) has increased to about 30% worldwide. Education in STEM fields often forms the basis of knowledge crucial to inventing and patenting, and research has shown that an increase in the number of graduates in STEM fields is tied to an increase in patenting activity.
This is reflected in the latest statistics from WIPO published earlier this year which show that the number of PCT applications with women inventors increased from 21.7% in 2002 to 29.7% in 2016. The total number of PCT applications with women inventors almost tripled from around 22,600 to around 62,400 over the same period.
Though considerable progress has been made in increasing women's participation in patenting, this progress has not been uniform in all technical fields. In 2016, in technical fields related to life science areas such as biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, organic fine chemistry, food chemistry and analysis of biological materials, more than 50% of PCT applications had at least one female inventor, while for categories such as handling, civil engineering, transport, machine tools, engines, pumps, turbines and mechanical elements, under 20% of PCT applications had at least one female inventor.
However, women's participation rates vary greatly between countries. Among the top 20 countries, the equality league is clearly headed by the Republic of Korea and China where nearly 47% of the PCT applications filed in 2016 had at least one woman inventor. The next nation in line was Spain with about 36% of applications including women inventors. Nordic countries often take great pride in their approach to gender equality. However, in this context they fall surprisingly far behind. Finland is best at 26.3%, while the proportion for Sweden is only 23.9%.
Removing obstacles to patenting
While the increasing number of female inventors is certainly good news, research shows that women and men are still not innovators on equal terms. Closing the gender patenting gap requires a better understanding of the reasons for women's under-representation in patenting so that policies and supportive programmes can better address obstacles which are keeping women from patenting. Recent studies reveal that major concerns remain a lack of access to capital, a segregated labour market and insufficient support systems.
Financial barriers to patenting are likely to be greater for women than for men as women tend to have fewer financial resources. In general, a filed patent application or a granted patent increases the chances of obtaining funding. Women entrepreneurs are therefore still less likely to have access to start-up capital and to receive outside funding.
As patents are a form of intellectual property, many women, especially married women, lacked the economic power or legal rights to make or market an invention in their own name
Although women constitute nearly half the workforce, at least in the Western world, they still only make up about one third or less of the STEM workforce. However, this gender gap in STEM education does not fully explain the under-representation of women inventors. A closer look at the statistics show that women with relevant STEM degrees patent at lower rates than male counterparts. This indicates that, while increasing women's representation in STEM fields is an important factor in increasing women's participation in patenting, it is even more important to focus on eliminating obstacles to patenting for women who already hold STEM degrees.
In this regard it is also important to note that men and women tend to focus on different STEM fields: women concentrate on life sciences such as chemistry, biotechnology and pharmaceuticals which have relatively low patenting rates while men are more likely to engage in more patent intensive fields such as electrical and mechanical engineering. Therefore, increasing women's participation in traditionally male technical fields could potentially reduce the gender patenting gap.
Another important factor in patenting is being part of personal and professional networks. Networks are often central to an inventor's ability to gain access to useful contacts and resources, funding, intellectual property education, technical assistance and opportunities to collaborate on projects. Inventions developed by teams, as opposed to by a single inventor, tend to produce patents which are more successful and of a better quality.
Collaboration teams are often selected based on contacts from a network. Collaboration networks, as measured by co-patenting, are different between industry and academia. In academic collaboration networks, the scientists are connected to only one or a few top scientists, while in industry the scientists involved are more equally connected to several other scientists without a top scientist monopolising contacts. Women tend to have smaller and more limited networks than men, and in academia women are generally less centrally located in the networks. For women, other women make up a greater share of the contacts in the network than for men. Moreover, women's networks tend to consist of similarly situated peers who often face the same challenges in establishing useful connections and acquiring funding. If the opportunity to patent arises through networks, those who are not members or are only peripherally connected will be left out. Thus, one way of forming inventor teams which may benefit women is through collaboration networks linking academy and industry.
Accordingly, there are a great many social, cultural and economic reasons why women are under-represented as inventors and although we have come far since the early days of patenting, there is still some way to go until women and men can invent and patent their inventions on equal terms.
European Patent Attorney
Authorised Patent Attorney (SE)
Katrin works on all manner of patent issues such as pre-patenting investigations, patent drafting and prosecution, freedom-to-operate analysis, infringement and validity evaluations. Katrin has patent expertise in the fields of biochemistry, biophysics, biotechnology, microbiology, and mechanics. She has specialist knowledge in protein biology, foodstuff, allergies and immunology. Katrin has extensive experience in patent portfolio management in particular for small and mid-sized companies, including start-ups, and often works in close collaboration with inventors, advising on research and patent strategy matters. Between 1998 and 2004, she was employed as chemical and microbiological analysis expert for a Swedish analysis company, specialising in the areas of food and environment
European Patent Attorney
Authorised Patent Attorney (SE)
Anette specialises in absorbent materials and products, paper, cellulose and fibre technology, polymers, adhesives, packaging and packaging technology and general chemical and mechanical inventions. Anette has vast experience in opposition and appeal proceedings at the European Patent Office as well as freedom-to-operate analyses and infringement opinions. She supports and advises clients in intellectual property matters and is involved in the training of junior colleagues under the mentor programme at Valea. Anette started her IP career in 1985 as a patent engineer at Mölnlycke AB, now Essity Hygiene and Health AB, where she was employed until 1996.