The PTO Director says women are awarded significantly fewer patents, but is that true for the life sciences?

Michelle K. Lee, director of the Patent and Trademark office in remarks delivered Nov. 10 at the University of Texas in Dallas cited findings from a working paper shared with her by the authors. They found that the share of patents going to women has risen over time but is at less than 15 percent and that, at the current rate of convergence, it will take another 140 years for women to obtain 50 percent of granted patents.

I remember several research papers published  a few years ago that suggested that things might be better, although not equal with men, for women working in the life sciences.

In the article “Women Inventors in Context: Disparities Across Academia and Industry,” Kjersten Bunker Whittington and Laurel Smith-Doerr in the journal Gender & Society (April 2008, pp. 194-218) indicated that based on their research women scientists in biotechnology are more likely to be patent holders than in more hierarchically-arranged organizational settings in industry and academia. This is due, they wrote, because of the more flexible, network-based organizational structures that exist in biotechnology. 

Other studies before and after Whittington and Smith-Doerr’s reached similar conclusions and the idea that patenting in the life sciences is different for women has persisted.

Just this year, however, Cassidy R. Sugimoto and others published a study in the journal PLOS One titled “The Academic Advantage: Gender Disparities in Patenting” that tracked the rise in patents issued to women—they show an increase from 2.7 percent in 1976 to 10.7 percent in 2013. But as for biotechnology, they found that it had no advantage over other technologies and that the “strength of female patenting in academic settings persisted across almost all technological areas, while firms are consistently below the world average in terms of female participation”.

Looking at the broader picture, Alison McCook wrote in the article “Women in biotechnology: Barred from the boardroom” in Nature (March 6, 2013) that the number of women in scientific research is going up, but where academia crosses into industry, such as in obtaining patents and developing startups, men still rule.

Lee concluded her remarks by stating, “Curiosity, not gender, drives innovation, but I don’t feel we are yet tapping into our entire population’s curiosity. We are not fully using both hands. We do not yet have all hands on deck. But we’re making progress.”