The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s (“USPTO”) Office of the Chief Economist released a new report last week examining women inventor trends in the United States from 1976 to 2016.  The study showed that only 21 percent of U.S. patents granted during that 40-year period include at least one woman listed as an inventor.  Despite growing rates of women earning science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (“STEM”) degrees, and increasing participation rates among women in nearly all science occupations, women do not patent technology at the significant rates of their male counterparts.  A 2016 report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (“IWPR”) reported a similar gender gap in patenting, finding that only 18.8 percent of U.S. patents listed a woman inventor.

Notably, the USPTO study does not discuss the inventing rates of women of color.  Like previous studies by other researchers, because the USPTO does not currently collect demographic data from patent applicants, this study determined the gender of inventors by matching the first names of listed inventors to recognized databases of male and female names.  However, this approach has limitations, including inaccurate results for gender-neutral names, names that correspond to different genders in different languages, and translation of names that have no English equivalent.  These limitations also make it difficult for researchers to analyze patenting rates of inventors according to race and other characteristics.

Although the aggregate patent gap is significant, the USPTO report found an even starker gap in the number of individual women inventors.  In 2016, for example, only 12 percent of all unique inventors granted a patent in the U.S. were women.

In addition to the low rates of patenting among women inventors generally, the study did report a number of other findings:

  • Women working in “technology-intensive states” tend to patent at higher rates. Delaware, with 18 percent, and the District of Columbia and New Jersey with 17 percent each, are home to the highest rates of women inventors, while patent-intensive California, Massachusetts, and New York also have high rates of women inventors at about 15 percent each.
  • Women who live in states that have a higher percentage of women participation in the workforce also tend to patent at higher rates.
  • Women who work on larger, mixed-gender teams also tend to patent at higher rates. Although the report does not provide much detail on this finding, it does suggest that the gender dynamics of collaborative inventor networks has an impact on patenting rate on mixed gender teams.  This conclusion is consistent with the findings of the 2016 IWPR report, as well as studies conducted by other scholars who have found that women in private industry, which tends to employ more collaborative research teams, patent inventions at higher rates than women in academia, where individual research and teaching take priority over patenting and commercialization.

USPTO Director Andrei Iancu has publicly emphasized the importance of encouraging full participation in the innovation ecosystem across demographic groups.  This report is the first of two the USPTO is expected to release this year addressing underrepresentation in patenting and commercializing innovations.  The other report, required by the 2018 Study of Underrepresented Classes Chasing Engineering and Science Success (SUCCESS) Act (Pub. Law No. 115-273), will be delivered to Congress later this year.  That study directs the USPTO, in consultation with the Small Business Administration, to study disparities in patenting by race, income, and veteran status, in addition to gender, and to make recommendations to Congress and the Administration for closing the gaps in patenting and entrepreneurship experienced by these underrepresented groups.