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Women at universities file patents at higher rate

Around the world, the number of women filing patents with the US Patent and Trade Office over the last 40 years has risen fastest within universities, a new study shows.

“To find out that women are patenting at higher rates in academia compared to industry, government, and individuals is a surprising discovery,” says study leader Cassidy R. Sugimoto, an associate professor of informatics at the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University Bloomington.

“We had thought it might fall lower since patenting in still considered ‘optional’ in terms of promotion in academia, although it’s increasingly encouraged.”

The analysis, which examined 4.6 million utility patents issued from 1976 to 2013, appears in PLOS ONE.

patents map
This map shows the proportion of inventor-patent combinations by gender on file with the US patent office from 1976 to 2013 by country. Countries with higher proportions of patents with women’s names appear in orange. (Credit: Cassidy R. Sugimoto)
patents charts
These charts show the rise in proportion of patents with women’s names from 1976 to 2012. (Credit: Cassidy R. Sugimoto)

The role of patenting at academic institutions has grown in significance since the passage of the Bayh-Dole Act in 1980, which transferred intellectual property revenue based on federally funded research discoveries from government to universities.

Sugimoto and collaborators found that from 1976 to 2013, the overall percentage of patents with women’s names attached rose from an average of 2 to 3 percent across all areas to 10 percent in industry, 12 percent in individuals, and 18 percent in academia.

The analysis also reveals that patents from women frequently included contributors from a wider variety of fields, suggesting women inventors were more collaborative and multidisciplinary.

“The relative success of large research universities in fostering women’s innovation might be due in part to the unique emphasis placed on intellectual communities in academia,” she says. “Women interested in entrepreneurship in industry may encounter a greater sense of isolation.”

In addition, Sugimoto emphasized the important role played by university technology transfer offices in setting policies that encourage women’s innovation.

Room for improvement

The study also reveals a number of places where patent-filing among women has room to improve. For instance, she says neither academic nor industrial nor government patents came close to reflecting women’s current representation in science, technology, engineering, and math—the fields most associated with patentable discoveries. Women make up one-third of all researchers in the STEM fields.

She also found the “impact score” assigned to patents with the names of women—calculated using the number of times these patents were cited in other filings—was much lower compared to patents with male names.

The numbers reflect similar findings to earlier research from Sugimoto on women and academic publishing, which found significantly lower citation rates for women.

Communism and equality

Other statistics from the research include that patents with women’s names did not exceed 2 percent of all patents from 1637 to the mid-1900s, and that a total of 42 countries, primarily in the Middle East and Africa, report no patents with women’s names.

The proportional rate of patents with women’s names was highest in Eastern Europe, Asia, and several African countries, a result reflecting other research that found greater gender parity in communist and former-communist countries, Sugimoto says.

Overall, the study tracked female patent filers across 185 countries, all of whom filed their discoveries with the US patent office.

Additional contributors to the study are Chaoqun Ni of Simmons College, Jevin D. West of the University of Washington, and Vincent Larivière of the University of Montreal.

The study received support from the National Science Foundation’s Science of Science and Innovation Policy Program as well as the Canada Research Chairs program, Fonds de Recherche du Québec-Société et Culture, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Source: Indiana University