Shedding light on the inventor gender gap

Men are still far more likely than women to be inventors – and that might have a big impact on the availability of new medical technologies that benefit women. “Does who gets opportunities to invent affect what gets invented?” asks McGill’s John-Paul Ferguson.

Story by Diana Kwon, MSc'15

August 2021

The gender gap among inventors is stark. While there has been progress toward gender equality in recent years, the majority of patents to date have been awarded to male inventors. John-Paul Ferguson, an associate professor of organizational behaviour in McGill’s Desautels Faculty of Management, wanted to know the downstream effects of this disparity—specifically, whether the disproportionate number of male inventors influences who benefits from those creations.

“If entire swaths of your society [have a harder time accessing] education, financial capital, resources and so on, someone who has an amazing idea never gets to develop it—much less commercialize it,” says Ferguson. “The follow-up question you want to ask is: Does who gets opportunities to invent affect what gets invented?”

Over the years, the representation of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) has improved, but men still outnumber women in these fields. This discrepancy is particularly large among inventors—in the United States, for example, only 13 percent of patent inventors are women.

Recent studies have also pinpointed a gap among inventions, with a dearth of new products catered toward women’s health—and anecdotal evidence suggested that women are more likely to create female-focused inventions. Over beers at a conference, Ferguson and a couple of colleagues from other universities, Rembrand Koning at Harvard Business School and Sampsa Samila at the Universidad de Navarra in Barcelona, hatched a plan to bridge these two lines of research by carrying out a systematic assessment on one of the large set of patents available—the database belonging to the Patent and Trademark Office in the United States.

In the study, which was recently published in Science, the team focused on biomedicine, an area where the benefits of inventions to those of a specific gender are more clear-cut than in other fields—for example, a new treatment for prostate cancer will obviously be more beneficial to males than, say, a therapeutic for endometriosis, which only occurs in those who possess a female reproductive system.

The researchers examined 441,504 biomedical patents filed in the U.S. between 1976 and 2010. They first coded the gender to each of the inventors on those patents based on their names, then assessed the sex-specificity of the described inventions by feeding the content of each patent through the National Library of Medicine’s Medical Text Indexer, a tool that uses machine learning to pinpoint key terms associated with a given text.

The first trend Ferguson and his colleagues noticed was a positive one: over the years, the share of patents filed by female-majority teams has risen, from 6.3 percent in 1976 to 16.2 in 2010. Still, the number of patents from male-majority teams continued to vastly outnumber them, with 373,774 patents filed by teams primarily composed of men and 56,286 from groups that are mostly women.

The female-majority teams were 18.5 percent more likely to come up with female-focused innovations than the male-majority teams, while being only six percent less likely to invent for men. In addition, the more women there were on a team, the more likely they were to gear their creations toward women’s needs. “It turns out that there’s a positive effect associated with having women on the team,” Ferguson says. “And it grows as the share of women on the team increases.”

When the researchers looked at gender differences in the biomedical research literature, they discovered a trend that mirrored that seen within patents: teams with a higher proportion of women had a greater chance of reporting discoveries relevant to women. These findings suggest that there are many female-oriented ideas that have yet to be developed because women are less likely to obtain patents than men.

Ferguson and his team also estimated that if women and men had been awarded an equal number of patents between 1976 and 2010, there would have been approximately 3,500 more female-focused inventions.

In future studies, Ferguson plans to tackle the question of how increasing the share of female-oriented inventions ultimately impacts women’s health. He also hopes to look at whether similar inequalities among inventors exist within fields other than biomedicine and among other underrepresented groups—and who benefits from those inventions.

“Imagine that you grow up in an area where historically, access to clean water has been a problem,” Ferguson says, “Are you proportionally more likely to come up with an invention associated with clean drinking water than people who haven’t necessarily been exposed to that problem over their lives?”

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