Inventorship, Patents and the “Fair Sex”

It goes without saying that the world of patents in the United States is infused with discovery, from the creation of useful household gadgets to the invention of medical imaging technology. Such discoveries enrich our lives, help us and solve problems. But there is one discovery as it relates to patents that is, frankly, startling, which is the fact that that only 7.7 percent of all United States patents list a woman as the primary inventor, and only 18.8 percent of U.S. patents include a woman co-inventor. (Institute for Women’s Policy Research, “Equity in Innovation: Women Inventors and Patents,” July 2016.)

Since the first patent was awarded to Samuel Hopkins in 1790 for developing a new way to make potash (crude potassium carbonate, useful in making soap and the manufacture of glass), the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), 228 years and 10 million patents later, approves less than 10 percent of patents to sole female inventors. Which begs the question, why? Why so few women inventors?

The answer to that is unsatisfyingly complicated and, to be sure, cannot be adequately addressed in this short article. However, it’s worth highlighting a few starting points for thought.

Let’s start with the foundation of patent law, which rests on the United States Constitution, which in turn provides that Congress shall have the power to “promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries” (U.S. Const. art. 1, § 8, cl.8, emphasis added). Patents advance the public good by encouraging inventors to continue in their discoveries by granting limited-term monopolies that protect the inventions from exploitation and misuse by those who have no established interest or contribution. An inventor, according to New Oxford American Dictionary, is defined as a person who invented a particular process or device, or who invents things as an occupation. So, as far as we know, there’s no overt prohibition against persons who are women being inventors, long-standing cultural biases against women aside.

Following that, women’s low representation in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, according to the previously noted IWPR study, plays a role in their low patenting rates and, specifically, women’s underrepresentation in patent-intensive engineering jobs. Women make up roughly 20 percent of graduates from engineering schools, but hold less than 15 percent of engineering jobs  (The Christian Science Monitor, “Equity Pending: Why So Few Women Receive Patents,” by Eoin O'Carroll). Additionally, women are weakly represented in computer science, another patent-intensive field. Contrast that to 58.3 percent of degrees to women in the biological sciences. Further, within STEM fields, women are also underrepresented in development and design, the most patent-intensive job tasks (IWPR, “Equity in Innovation” 2016).

Financial barriers are another doorkeeper to women inventors. According to the IWPR study, women earn less than men overall and have fewer financial resources and, thus, may be less likely to take on the potentially substantial cost of patenting an idea. USPTO application fees, patent attorney fees and fees to keep a patent in force once granted can be a costly and sometimes risky venture to women entrepreneurs who tend to have smaller and lower-level professional networks and, subsequently, are four times less likely than men to receive outside equity. Solid industry contacts are a strong predictor of patenting involvement (The Atlantic, “Why Do Women Inventors Hold So Few Patents?” by Adrienne LaFrance).

When Mary Dixon Kies received a patent signed by President James A. Madison on May 5, 1809, for “a new and useful improvement in weaving straw with silk or thread,” she became the first American woman patent holder. Since, numbers of women—albeit small numbers—have patented their inventions, including Sarah Mather (1845) who received a patent for a submarine telescope and lamp; famed Hedy Lamarr (1941) patented an invention that manipulated radio frequencies so that top-secret messages could not be intercepted; Stephanie Louise Kwolek developed synthetic material called Kevlar that is five times stronger than the same weight of steel (1966); and mother-and-daughter team Betty Rozier and Lisa Vallino, invented an intravenous catheter shield to make the use of IVs in hospitals safer and easier (1992). The world needs more inventors like Lori Greiner, current American inventor, businesswoman and television star (Shark Tank), who has created more than 700 commercial products and holds more than 120 patents.

While recognition of women inventors is worth cheering, any lasting enthusiasm is dampened by the fact that among sole inventors, patents granted to women are concentrated in classes associated with traditional female roles, such as jewelry and apparel, according to the IWPR study. Patents that have any women inventors, however, span a greater variety of patent classes, but are better represented in patent classes that are less STEM-intensive, corresponding to their underrepresentation among STEM degree holders. Additionally, women of color, particularly black and Hispanic women, are less likely to obtain U.S. patent rights than white women and men. (IWPR, “Equity in Innovation” 2016).

It is important to note that while the IWPR 2016 study of women and patents is informative, it may not present the entire picture. The report compiles existing research literature related to women and patents, such as women in STEM fields or National Survey of College Graduates surveys. However, since gender data is not collected by the USPTO, a precise method of obtaining the number of women patentees is challenging.

As for a bit of good news, in 1977 just 3.4 percent of all patents had at least one woman inventor. By 2010, the number increased to 18.8 percent (IWPR, “Equity in Innovation” 2016).

The increase of women patentees in the United States is a positive trend, however slow-as-molasses the pace. But it can continue. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research recommends accurate methods for tracking women’s progress in patenting; employer assistance with patent costs; continued support for increase of women in STEM fields (see National Science Foundation study, “Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering”); and better networking opportunities and professional contacts for women.

One important, yet simple, and perhaps not well known contribution to improving the dismal rate of women inventors is the Girl Scouts Intellectual Property Patch. The IP Patch was developed as a partnership of Girl Scout Council of the Nation’s Capital (GSCNC) and the USPTO, in collaboration with the Intellectual Property Owners (IPO) Education Foundation. The program supports curriculum and activities for girls of all ages designed to increase awareness and interest in intellectual property across disciplines, especially as it relates to STEM fields. Providing girls with the opportunity to explore inventorship as they grow and mature could certainly help them establish themselves as the inventors envisioned in art. 1, § 8, cl.8 of the U.S. Constitution. —Ginny Guidry