Why Aren't There More Female Patent-Holders?

(Photo: Michael Neubert)

We’ve blogged before about gender inequality and the persistent male/female wage gap.  A new working paper by Jennifer Hunt, Jean-Philippe Garant, Hannah Herman, and David J. Munroe highlights another arena where women are lagging: commercialized patents. Only 7.5 percent of regular patent and 5.5 percent of commercial patent holders are female.  The authors explored various explanations for the gap:

Using the National Survey of College Graduates 2003, we find only 7% of the gap is accounted for by women’s lower probability of holding any science or engineering degree, because women with such a degree are scarcely more likely to patent than women without. Differences among those without a science or engineering degree account for 15%, while 78% is accounted for by differences among those with a science or engineering degree. For the latter group, we find that women’s underrepresentation in engineering and in jobs involving development and design explain much of the gap…

The disparity has real economic consequences: “The gender patenting gap is of economic significance: eliminating the patenting shortfall of female holders of science and engineering degrees would increase GDP per capita by 2.7%.”


From my experience, girls gets involved in science / math at about same level as boys in elementary school. A large portion, if not most of the top tier science / math students were girls in my classes. However, this changes dramatically during high school, even when same classes largely remained together.

Joe J

Many years ago I had asked one girl why she was dropping out of AP Calc. Her answer was basically, she was being teased by her female friends for being seen with nerds, and besides poetry was more fun. Being a big nerd myself, pretty much lost contact with her.
Hoping the anti-nerd attitude has changed over the decades but I doubt that it has.

Aside from that on IQ women generally have a narrower bell curve with IQ than men. Meaning that men have more extremes, more idiot and more genius, which may be a factor.


But the same effect is true in countries like Japan, China, India and Russia from my understanding, where nerdy is much more of a norm than exception, so the cool factor doesn't really hold.

Mike B

Women holding fewer patents is only a problem IF that means they are simply not inventing things OR if men are somehow stealing their ideas. If women are inventing new, non-obvious things, but simply choosing not to patent them then they should be applauded for putting society and the public domain ahead of their own selfish needs. If there is a problem with today's patent system it is that too many things are patented, not too few. It is a testament to their gender that women aren't looking to make a living going around suing people on dubious grounds.

Robyn Goldstein (female)

Dear Mike B,

You made two false assumptions. 1)one gets a patent (in my case trademark) only for selfish reasons. 2)the only reason to get one is for the purpose of looking to make a living filing suits on dubious legal grounds.

When it comes to making a scientific advance/discovery- I see no reason why I or anyone else who has made an original discovery should not get the credit where the credit is due.

As to the explanation of our differences, that will be in print. I will say this, my grandmother made every effort to keep her lawyer husband believing that he was in charge. She told this very funny story of being in the country and having people to dinner. They were glat kosher so no meat and milk. WEll, how this happened I don't know, but the cooked chicken was flung in the air and landed across the room in a bowl of milk. My grandmother washed it off and served it. Never reported the incident i.e., kept the truth as to who really was in charge of their kitchen/household to herself.



Maybe men and women have different fundamental needs because of being complementary not identical? Just a far out thought...


I agree, men and women do have different needs and are not identical. In fact, I'm so far out I actually think this applies to all individuals, regardless of gender.

Kevin P.

Full disclosure: I am a patent holder - 3 patents in the semiconductor industry.

This is another in a long series of silly efforts to impose gender equality without too much thought or understanding. Particularly this statement:
...eliminating the patenting shortfall of female holders of science and engineering degrees would increase GDP per capita by 2.7%.”

Patents are typically filed by people working at the peak of a pyramid of science and engineering jobs, companies and industry. The pyramid has a very wide base. If you want to increase the number of X at the peak, you need to increase the number of X at the base.

There are fewer women in the base of science and engineering, and there will therefore be fewer at the top as well.


The fact that neuroscience tells us that men and women are as chemically different on the inside as they appear on the outside (on average of course) is a fact that even the most objective researchers employing a scientific method always choose to ignore and instead ask questions that simply amount to "Hey you guys why do most men have higher levels of testosterone than women?"

I don't know why women choose not to file patents however the most likely explanation is that on average they make different choices than men do and this is very plausible since variation is a known staple of evolution but sorry thats a boring conclusion.


No generalisation is accurate; however, I do find from personal experience that women are, in general, an incurious lot. Men tend to gain much esteem from working hard and gaining respect through their accomplishments, and most women do not display these characteristics. This probably extends to the patent world.

I expect things will change with time, but I would bet that, in 500 years, there will still be a major imbalance.


The study seems to treat “Science and Engineering” as one broad category, but what about a breakdown across sub-fields? It seems like it might be the case that some fields like software engineering that are heavily male dominated are also very active in the patent application department. Maybe a way to bring the gender gap down is to limit software patents?


As a patent attorney, I have to ask, what is the difference between a 'regular patent' and a 'commercial patent'?

I probably file 5-7 patent applications each year for independent inventors (i.e., getting the patent for themselves or a company in which they own more than 50% interest). I can think of only two such applications I have filed on behalf of women. Approximately 32,000 of approximately 378,000 patents issued in 2010 were granted to independent inventors, whereas 20,000-27,000 patents are held by women.

Also, since more than one person can be an inventor, does that mean >95% of patents are held by men or is that men hold 15% of patents and corporate entities hold 80% (hypothetical numbers)?

Eric M. Jones.

I have a double-handful of patents (10) in the medical device and electronics industries. I have heard many explanations for why women don't get many patents:

1) Women express their creativity in ways and in fields that don't usually generate patents.
2) Men have better spatial reasoning.
3) Men create objects, women create life.
4) Most people live up to (or down to) society's expectations--and this included patent attorneys' expectations. If more women were patent attorneys the situation would not exist.
5) More idiots and more geniuses are men. I am usually the former but occasionally the latter.
6) I observe that the really smart guys are usually guys (with beards, questionable bathing habits, and mismatched socks...if they even wear socks).

But I also think that men and women are simply constructed of different stuff. And women are, after all, the creators of society. Men are just allowed to live in it. So far...


John Shepard

This sums up things very comcisely:



“The gender patenting gap is of economic significance: eliminating the patenting shortfall of female holders of science and engineering degrees would increase GDP per capita by 2.7%.”

Presumably this means women patenting more while men patent the same, and not the other way around (which would certainly decrease GDP). But that's not necessarily possible, it's like saying how rich we could all be if we all earned the same as the richest people.


"The most important determinants of the gender gap among S&E degree holders are
women's underrepresentation in patent intensive fi elds of study, especially electrical and
mechanical engineering.... Columns 1 and 2 show the highest degrees of women with any S&E degree are concentrated in the life sciences: 27% of their highest degrees are in this fi eld, compared to 14% for men. Consequently, women with S&E degrees are underrepresented
in most other S&E fi elds, with the largest gaps in the relatively large (for men) fields of
electrical and mechanical engineering."

So if we can just convince people to pursue degrees in fields that don't interest them, we'll be one step closer to closing this gender gap and raising our GDP.

In fact, if we simply increase the number of electrical engineers in the US from 300,000 to 150,000,000 (the total workforce of the US) then we could increase our GDP by 50,000%.



“The gender patenting gap is of economic significance: eliminating the patenting shortfall of female holders of science and engineering degrees would increase GDP per capita by 2.7%.”

Ah ah ah... how would this work? - who is to say that a higher percentage of patents held by women means more patents overall? who is to say that more patents overall leads to higher GDP? I would like to see the paper to check how on earth that statement is justified - unfortunately can't access it.

I suspect it is based in nothing more than a spurious correlation between GDP and patent filling (which I do not doubt it exists I'm just not so sure that the causal link is there (or if it is, I wonder it it isn't the other way around: higher GDP leading to higher investment leading to higher patents - which may or may not lead to higher GDP)). Typical case of econometric myopia - understanding the numbers but not appreciating feedback mechanisms and that no truer sentence has been uttered than "it is the feedback structure that determine behaviour in a system". But for the sake of argument lets accept the premise "more patents lead to higher GDP". Two related issues I find with this notion of increasing women patent filing will increase GDP:

1) How do you propose the GAP be reduced? - one way is directly diverting investment to support women scientists and inventors instead of male inventors (something I would support but for other reasons, other than "increasing women that file patents may increase GDP). Now, if this is the case this only has the effect of changing the ratio of women to men patent holders, which is something that will NOT increase GDP as it will NOT increase the total number of patent filling (unless the authors claim that women are FUNDAMENTALLY better managers of their inventions and can market them better or even FUNDAMENTALLY better inventors and would have better ideas)

2) Maybe the authors are proposing that we set up programmes that encourage more women scientists to submit patents - if this is done not to the prejudice of male scientists - maybe the patent numbers would increase. Now I have a problem with this, because I don't think women are stupid or unambitious I don't think they lag in patent filing because they lack encouragement - I think that if more women had patentable inventions more would be filed (I'm not saying that women are not able to have patentable inventions, I'm saying that a combination of interests and lack of opportunities in a male dominated world act in not giving women the right kind of opportunities) - which gets me back to point number (1) redirecting investment to women scientists does not have the effect of increasing the number of patents it only changes who benefits...

So, I'm indeed at a loss on figuring out how on earth did the authors conjure up the idea that more women patents lead to an increase in GDP?


Dr. Jo

The problem is not getting or developing the idea...the problem is in getting your male boss to invest in the patent or marketing it. He is too ashamed that he didn't think of the idea first. ( look up what percent of bosses are male in the U.S....still.)5

robyn goldstein

Ah yes. Something just occurred to me. The point is moot. How many mother's name their children consistent with their dreams, values, wishes for a better/easier life for them. If that is not a patent in the broad sense, what is?