Gender and Patents: Are Women Slackers?

<a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/48169267@N08/4967256177/sizes/m/in/photostream/">Special Collections, Waterloo Library</a>/Flickr


Why don’t women hold more patents? The National Bureau of Economic Research examined the question in a new working paper, and on Thursday, NPR’s Marketplace featured a segment with Freakonomics author Stephen Dubner about the issue.

The radio segment was bothersome. Dubner started by blaming women for there being “room for improvement in the innovation field,” then proceeded to argue that the disparity might be because men are bigger “risk-takers,” and concluded by suggesting that segregating the work force is the best answer. The segment had an overarching tone of, “Geez, womens, would you get your act together? But do it somewhere else, the menfolk are busy.”

That’s not to say the data in the NBER paper isn’t interesting. The Bureau found that overall, women hold 7.5 percent of all patents, and only 5.5 percent of commercial patents. Men hold the rest. Many people assume that this is because women are less likely to hold degrees in things like engineering or hard sciences, but that only accounts for 7 percent of the massive gap. And simply increasing women’s representation in those fields “would have little effect absent other changes.”

More important, the authors found, is increasing the number of women working in electrical and mechanical engineering, the “most patent-intensive fields,” and increasing the number of women working in jobs that focus on development and design—a disparity that accounts for 40 percent of the gap in commercial patents. They also found that the fact that women working in the kind of jobs where they might develop ideas to patent tend to be younger than their male counterparts accounts for 29 percent of the gap. 

But here’s what both Dubner and the NBER paper missed: women are actually closing the patent gap quite quickly already. The National Women’s Business Council released a report earlier this month that found that women have doubled their share of patents in the last 22 years. Women hold 18 percent of the patents filed since 1990. And in 2010, the number of patents granted to women increased by 35 percent. So I’d say women are actually doing pretty well these days.

THE BIG QUESTION...

as we head into 2020 is whether politics and media will be a billionaires’ game, or a playing field where the rest of us have a shot. That's what Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein tackles in her annual December column—"Billionaires Are Not the Answer"—about the state of journalism and our plans for the year ahead.

We can't afford to let independent reporting depend on the goodwill of the superrich: Please help Mother Jones build an alternative to oligarchy that is funded by and answerable to its readers. Please join us with a tax-deductible, year-end donation so we can keep going after the big stories without fear, favor, or false equivalency.

THE BIG QUESTION...

as we head into 2020 is whether politics and media will be a billionaires’ game, or a playing field where the rest of us have a shot.

Please read our annual column about the state of journalism and Mother Jones' plans for the year ahead, and help us build an alternative to oligarchy by supporting our people-powered journalism with a year-end gift today.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.