The Paucity of Women Inventors
In March, we celebrate Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, acknowledging the role of women in American history and the achievements of women worldwide. In the world of intellectual property (IP), we remember those who invented frequency hopping spread-spectrum signaling, kevlar, center-track restraint systems for animals, and the paper bag, among other things. We also acknowledge that there is substantial room for improvement in the patenting of inventions by women.
In a message posted last Friday, the Director of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) noted the increase in the percentage of inventors on international patents who are women, from 9.5% in 1995 to almost 19% in 2019, but also lamented the low participation of women in the international IP system. WIPO predicts parity in 2044.
In the US, the increase in the percentage of named inventors who are women has been much slower, rising from about 13% in 1995 to 16% in 2016, according to the USPTO’s 2019 “Progress and Potential” Report. This report also indicates that the proportion of inventors who are women remains below the proportion of science and engineering jobs held by women, suggesting that the low “women inventor rates” are not merely the result of gender-based discrepancies in STEM education.
Indeed, gender bias among USPTO Examiners may impact not only the quality of patents issued to woman inventors, but also the probability that they are granted at all, as documented by Jensen et al.’s 2018 article in Nature Biotechnology, Vol. 36 (4): 307-309.
The USPTO’s Report suggests that institutional factors may also contribute to the low percentage of inventors who are women. For patents assigned to universities and hospitals, almost 20% of named inventors were women. For patents assigned to business firms, only 12% of named inventors were women. This lower percentage could be due to fewer women inventors in the business world or less inventive activity by women in those environments. Alternatively, it could be due to institutional failures to acknowledge inventive activity by women.
Such failures are bad for women and for business. In the U.S., a patent must name the true inventors of the claimed invention and failure to do so, if not corrected, renders the patent invalid. As one example, see our prior blog post here. In addition, all of the true inventors of a patent have rights to the patent—meaning that a person who is a true but unnamed inventor can license the patent, for example, to the company’s competitor. It is therefore important to ensure that all persons who actually conceived of a patented invention are named as inventors.
Identifying the inventors on a patent is not always an easy task, but the patent attorneys among us can help ascertain when a suggestion becomes an invention. See our prior blog post here.
As we celebrate the history and accomplishments of women, including women inventors, we should also look for ways to increase the participation of women in our patent system. IP professionals can help by ensuring that all patent applications name the proper inventors (including potentially omitted women inventors) and that applications are filed for the women, as well as the men, who invent.