ISTOCK, OLIVIER LE MOAL
Women inventors have less success than men at each step of the patent application process in the U.S., according to a study published this month (April 5) in Nature Biotechnology. A review of more than 2 million submissions to the US Patent and Trademark Office finds that, regardless of the field, processing times are slower, rejection rates are higher, and the scope of the patent ends up narrower for filings coming from women than from men.
“The extent to which women are facing tougher hurdles is relatively small at every stage,” says study coauthor Olav Sorenson, a professor at the Yale School of Management. “[But] those are going to add up and mean that the [overall] disparities . . . are going to be much larger than they are at any individual stage of the process.”
Prior studies have reported that women are underrepresented as patent holders, Sorenson notes, but why that might be was unclear. To investigate, Sorenson and his colleagues analyzed data from 2.7 million patent applications filed in the U.S. between 2001 and 2014. These included information such as whether the patent was granted, any changes to the claims on the original submission, and the number of times it was cited in future patent requests. Then, the team identified the probable gender of each applicant using three databases—two commercial ones and another belonging to the US Social Security Administration—and compared patents submitted by groups of all women to groups of all men (applications from inventor teams of men and women together were omitted).
In general, patent applications submitted by women were 21 percent less likely to be accepted than those from their male counterparts. When the researchers took the type of technology into account, that difference dropped to 7 percent, which, the authors suggest, indicate that one reason for the higher rejection rate may be that women disproportionately file patents in research areas with a higher likelihood of failure. However, when the team looked specifically at applications in the life sciences—a field with a higher proportion of women than other science and technology disciplines—female inventors were still less successful than male applicants.
One way to reduce the gender disparity may be to blind the application process.
The researchers also found that patents from female inventors were less likely to be appealed if rejected and received fewer citations by future applicants—meaning that women may also face discrimination from other inventors. In addition, “we find some evidence that the patents [from women] become less valuable,” Sorenson says, “because they end up having fewer claims, and when there are claims, they’re more likely to have conditional clauses, which further reduce their scope.”
“To date, most of the research has just looked at how likely women and men are to patent their inventions, and it found that there is a substantial gap,” says Jessica Milli, a study director at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research who was not involved in the work. “But this [shows] there’s many different places throughout the application process [where] women might be at a disadvantage, so it helps broaden our knowledge of what those challenges are, and how we might be able to address them with policy changes.”
One way to reduce the gender disparity, Sorenson suggests, may be to blind the application process—for example, by only providing the inventors’ initials or surnames. “I don’t think the examiners are explicitly biased,” he adds. “I think it’s more likely to be some sort of implicit bias where in their subconscious mind they realize it’s a woman and it somehow affects their perception.”
The USPTO tells The Scientist in an emailed statement that the study’s findings are “speculative at best.” It continues, “The authors find suggestive statistical associations, but fail to identify causal relationships in their empirical work. . . . USPTO experts identified several weakness[es] that undermine any strong conclusions or policy recommendations based on the analysis.” One the issues, the statement notes, is that the researchers did not include applications with a mix of male and female inventors, which, the USPTO says, “maximizes the size of the reported effects, but does not reflect reality.”
The USPTO also notes that the patenting process does not only involve patent examiners, but other personnel, including business managers, attorneys, and the inventors themselves.
Setting aside the debate over whether the patent process is fair to women, one statistic is indisputable: men far outnumber women among applicants. John Van Reenen, a professor of economics at MIT who wasn’t involved in the study, says that’s the bigger problem. “There are just far fewer women applying for patents than men,” he says. Although that number is rising, it is still relatively low. According to a recent study, the proportion of US patent inventors who were women increased from 2.7 percent in 1976 to 10.8 percent in 2013.
K. Jensen et al., “Gender differences in obtaining and maintaining patent rights,” Nat Biotechnol, doi:10.1038/nbt.4120, 2018.