The Lost Einsteins: Women Underrepresented Among U.S. Inventors

A new report issued by the USPTO points to an untapped segment of U.S. innovators – women. Released on February 11, “Progress and potential: a profile of women inventors on U.S. patents” outlines the trends and characteristics of women inventors named on U.S. patents over the last 40 years. The report shows a modest increase in the number of women inventors, but documents that women still make up a small minority of inventors and highlights the untapped potential of women to spur innovation.

Between 1978 and 1997, the percentage of U.S. patents (limited to those having at least one U.S. resident inventor) with at least one female inventor increased from 5 percent to 14 percent, reflecting a low starting point and expanding opportunities for women to become inventors. However, from 1998 to 2016, the share increased more slowly from 15 percent to 21 percent.

The percentage of unique women inventors across all U.S. patents in a given year shows a similar trend, but at a slower pace. Through the mid-1980s, women comprised less than five percent of inventors. This reached ten percent in 2000. Sixteen years later, the rate of women inventors has increased to only 12 percent.

Among other trends noted by the report is that technology-intensive U.S. states, and those states where more women participate in the workforce, have higher rates of women inventors (with Delaware, the District of Columbia and New Jersey exhibiting the highest rates from 2012 to 2016). And while women are comprising an increasing percentage of the total science and engineering workforce (28 percent in 2015), that participation is not yet leading to broad increases in the inventor rate (12 percent in 2015). The technology sectors with the highest rates of women inventors for the last decade are design and chemistry.

Inventor rates also differ by patent ownership. From 2007 to 2016, the inventor rate was nearly 20 percent for universities and hospitals, 15 percent for public research organizations and just under 15 percent for individual-owned patents. The rate for businesses is persistently the lowest and is only 12 percent over the last decade. This varies greatly by type of business, with the highest rate (e.g., 21 percent to 28 percent) among chemical and pharmaceutical companies.

The report further observed that women are increasingly likely to file for patents as part of a large, mixed-gender team. In the last year of the study (2016), approximately 44 percent of patents with at least one woman inventor had a team of four or more inventors. This is part of a larger overall trend since 1976, with a decline in individual inventor patents (down to 33 percent from a majority) in favor of larger inventor teams, often reflecting a collaboration among diversely specialized inventors.

The report concludes that the innovative potential of women is underutilized. It finds that women are among the “lost Einsteins” (i.e., people who would have contributed valuable inventions if they had earlier exposure to innovation and inventor role models), and that harnessing this untapped talent would spur innovation and drive future growth.

For assistance with intellectual property matters, contact the author of this post, Edward Ramage, or any member of Baker Donelson’s Intellectual Property Group.

This article was originally published in the IAM Weekly International Reports at www.iam-media.com/.

W. Edward Ramage

Shareholder at Baker Donelson
W. Edward Ramage, a patent attorney and shareholder in Baker Donelson's Nashville office, concentrates his practice in the areas of patent and intellectual property law and litigation, including the protection and management of intellectual property asset portfolios. Contact him at eramage@bakerdonelson.com.
W. Edward Ramage