Inventor gender gap means women have lost out on 6,500 inventions

8 Jul 2021

Image: © Yakobchuk Olena/Stock.adobe.com

With women representing as few as one in six patent-holders, researchers unpacked the obvious and subtle consequences of this gender divide.

According to a new study published in Science, medical patents show distinct gender-related patterns.

To determine which inventions are female-focused, male-focused or neutral, researchers analysed 441,504 medical patents filed from 1976 through to 2010 using machine learning.

First, as a blanket fact, women hold fewer biomedical patents. This number has risen but is still nowhere near equal, maintaining a persistent inventor gender gap.

30 years ago, roughly one in 20 patent-holders were women, whereas the modern figure is closer to just under one in six.

This remains a massive underrepresentation, with the effect going beyond presence in the labour market.

‘Our findings suggest that the inventor gender gap is partially responsible for thousands of missing female-focused inventions since 1976’
– REMBRAND KONING

Male inventors tended to target diseases and conditions which disproportionately affect men, such as Parkinson’s and sleep apnoea.

Overall, the researchers found that across inventor teams of all gender mixes, biomedical invention from 1976 to 2010 generally focused more on the needs of men than women.

However, the team showed that patented biomedical inventions created by women are up to 35pc more likely to benefit women’s health than biomedical inventions created by men.

These patents are more likely to address conditions such as breast cancer and postpartum preeclampsia, as well as diseases that disproportionately affect women, such as fibromyalgia and lupus.

While inventions by women are more likely to be female-focused, such patents have been less common because so few inventors were women. In total, women were listed as co-inventors on one quarter of all patents filed during the period.

What’s more, the researchers noted that women scientists are 40pc less likely to commercialise their research ideas than male scientists.

“Our findings suggest that the inventor gender gap is partially responsible for thousands of missing female-focused inventions since 1976,” said co-author Rembrand Koning, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School.

“Our calculations suggest that had male and female inventors been equally represented over this period, there would have been an additional 6,500 more female-focused inventions.”

The researchers also found more subtle benefits when more women invent. Female inventors are more likely to identify how existing treatments for non-sex-specific diseases such as heart attacks, diabetes and stroke can be improved and adapted for the needs of women.

They are also more likely to test whether their ideas and inventions affect men and women differently: for example, if a drug has more adverse side effects in women than in men.

This is an important consideration, as women have suffered more adverse side effects from drugs as a result of underrepresentation in clinical trials.

This has been attributed to a reluctance to risk women’s childbearing potential, alongside an assumption that women will react identically to men during drug trials, which has been disproven.

Other reasons attributed to the inventor gender gap include a desire for decreased variability in studies, which were said to be impacted by women’s reproductive cycles – a claim that researchers argue lacks validity.

“Our results suggest that increasing representation should address these invisible biases,” said Koning.

Sam Cox is a journalist at Silicon Republic covering sci-tech news

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