An article that appeared on the BBC news site recently, Why are so few women inventors named on patents?, has got people talking.

After giving examples of inventions patented by women – the dishwasher (I can only imagine the smirks!), windscreen wipers and the board game Monopoly – and famous female inventors such as Marie Curie, the article goes on to make the point that there is a pretty significant gender imbalance when it comes to patenting. Here are some of the points made in the article:

  • Women inventors account for a mere 13% of patent applications filed globally, that's one female inventor for every seven male inventors.
  • Many patents are filed by teams rather than individuals and there is a real imbalance when it comes to teams – most teams are male-dominated, with over two thirds of patents being filed by all-male teams or individual male inventors, 6% by individual female inventors, and a mere 0.3% by all-female teams.
  • There are significant industry variations, whereas some 53% of biotech-related patents and 52% of pharmaceutical-related patents have at least one female inventor, with electrical engineering the percentage is no more than 10%.
  • There is a strong suggestion of blatant discrimination or bias when it comes to patent examination. US research suggests that applicants with obviously female names are less likely to get their patents through.

The article goes on to say that gender equality is a long way off, and that it is unlikely to be reached before 2070. But things are at least moving in the right direction, the proportion of women inventors has gone up from 6.8% to some 13% over the past 20 years, and the proportion of applications naming at least one female inventor has gone up from 12% to 21%. Russia leads the way, over the past 20 years 17% of Russian patents have included at least one female inventor, and France comes in second.

Incidentally if you're wondering how all the percentages were calculated given that gender is generally not listed in patent applications, we're told that it was simply done on the basis of the names of the inventors, with gender-neutral names like Robin being excluded.

According to the article one of the reasons for the imbalance is the fact that far fewer women than men work in science and technology. In the UK, for example, fewer than 25% of the employees in the so-called 'STEM' industries (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) are female. There's also a suggestion that female scientists are significantly less likely than men to seek a patent for their research and development, perhaps because they are less likely to think about the commercial possibilities.

When it comes to education, it is probably true that girls have historically been less drawn to STEM subjects than boys, but I think I am right in saying that this is changing in much of the world. In certain countries like Russia there is, of course, a long history of women in science. It is certainly something we need to encourage in South Africa and indeed all of Africa.

So what about the commercialisation aspect? I am not sure if women are less commercially-oriented than men, perhaps it is simply a case of fewer women being aware of the commercial opportunities offered by patents. With a patent you have a monopoly on the technology for a full 20 years and you can use that period to exploit the invention, either directly or through licensees who pay royalties. A patent is of course also a saleable asset.

Even if women are less commercially-oriented than men, there are other factors to bear in mind here. Yes, the patent system is essentially all about monopolies and commercialisation. And patents don't always get a good press, there certainly have been abuses of the system and there will no doubt continue to be abuses.

But the monopoly that is granted by a patent is time-limited. When the monopoly expires the invention falls into the public domain. The technology is then available to everyone, and it can be improved and taken forwards. The patent system is basically a contract between inventors and the state – be inventive, tell us what you've come up with and we'll give you a monopoly so that you can profit from it, but when that monopoly expires the technology will be available to everyone. Without the patent system it is unlikely that people would be as inventive as they are!

I hope this article will get more women thinking about patents.

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