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Posted at 06:01 PM ET, 03/08/2012

International Women’s Day: The real reason women get fewer patents than men do

Men file far more patents than women do, but women are securing an increasing number of patents and trademarks, according to a recent study by the National Women’s Business Council, a government advisory panel.


The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office complex in Alexandria, Va. (LARRY MORRIS - TWP)
In 2010, 22,984 patents were granted to women, a 35 percent jump over the previous year. The increase for men was only 28 percent.

“Overall, women held 18 percent of all patents granted in 2010, compared to the 14 percent they had a decade earlier. In 1990, they earned only 9 percent,” the study found.

Interestingly, the NWBC paper found that the highest rate of increase in the grant of patents to women was in the 1986-1993 period, and the slowest rate was in the 1999-2006 period, during the dot-com bubble.

The picture for trademarks was even better. Women nearly doubled their share of trademarks within a 30-year span.

“In 1980, women were granted just under 17 percent of all trademarks to individuals or sole proprietorships, or 189. In 2010, they represented 33 percent, earning 6,533 trademarks. That number was a slight dip from the all-time high in 2008, when women received 7,274 trademarks, 32 percent of all trademarks granted,” the study found.

National Women’s Business Council research director Julia Kurnik said the gains in both patents and trademarks may have resulted from an increase in women’s presence in both workplaces and university classrooms. According to the Census, 37 percent of women aged 25 and older had attained a bachelor’s degree or more as of 2010, compared with 35 percent of men. The numbers may also indicate that women are starting more successful businesses.

“This could be a sign of more innovation and entrepreneurial activity,” she said. “We are very excited to see that the numbers have been increasing. Patents and trademarks may increase the value of a business and increase access to capital.”

One reason the trademark numbers are higher is because of the disparate industries that are generally involved in the patent and trademark processes. Patents are for inventions, and woman are historically less represented in the fields of science and engineering. Meanwhile, trademarks are for product and business names, and those are not necessarily related to STEM fields.

Some of the top categories for women-owned patents were chemistry and pharmaceuticals, and Kurnik notes that women are generally better-represented in biological sciences than in engineering or computer science. However, women are also making gains in traditionally male-dominated fields of invention. The greatest rates of increase among women patent-owners were in data processing, surgery, and electrical computers and digital processing systems.

“Some of the areas that women are increasing the most are high-tech industries, so that bodes well,” she said.

Meanwhile, a new paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that women hold only 5.5 percent of all commercialized patents. However, the study’s authors conclude that the gender gap is explained by the fact that women are less likely to hold development and design jobs, not by the fact that they get fewer science and engineering degrees.

“Only 7 percent of that 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,” the study’s authors write. However, “78 percent is accounted for by differences among those with a science or engineering degree. For the latter group, we find that women’s under-representation in engineering and in jobs involving development and design explain much of the gap.”

Closing this patent gender gap, they note, would increase U.S. GDP per capita by 2.7 percent.

Correction: A previous version of this article suggested that Julia Kurnik wrote the study. She commission and designed the study, but the paper was written by Delixus, Inc, a private research company.

By  |  06:01 PM ET, 03/08/2012

 
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