Research has long shown that fewer patents are awarded to women than to men. Now a new study suggests that bias is fueling disparities in biomedical innovation as well.
The study, published Thursday in Science, found that female inventors are more likely to come up with biomedical ideas and products that focus on the needs of women whereas male inventors are more inclined to focus on products for men.
That, the authors concluded, suggests society may be missing out on medications, devices, and technology that could benefit women’s health.
The study found that, although the percentage of biomedical patents held by women had risen from 6.3% to 16.2% in the last three decades, men still significantly outnumber women as patent holders and, in turn, health- and medicine-related inventions more often address men’s health. If there was gender parity, there would have been 6,500 more female-focused inventions during the time the researchers studied, according to their findings.
Rembrand Koning, assistant professor of business administration at Harvard University and lead author of the new paper, said the idea for the study first came to him when his wife was seeking tools to recover from some complications of her pregnancy — but had trouble finding some. Then, while reading a Bloomberg article on the apprehensiveness on a part of investors to discuss a smart breast pump, the light bulb went off. “If [women] are patenting less, what sort of inventions might we be missing?” he asked.
Thinking more broadly this way about the implications of a lack of female patent holders may still be relatively new. Waverly Ding, associate professor at the University of Maryland who studies gender issues related to entrepreneurship and science and author of a 2006 Science study showing the gender gap in patenting, pointed out that people haven’t really thought about the consequences of her findings on society at large. “If we have a more diverse innovation workforce, then we’re going to have better results in terms of the quality and the type of patents we’re getting,” Ding said, adding, “But we have never really looked into this assumption and no one had tried to quantify what it means to have women’s representation.”
To get at that, Koning, along with two researchers at the University of Navarra in Spain and McGill University in Canada, used machine learning to examine the text of all U.S. biomedical patents filed between 1976 and 2010 and estimate whether a patent was intended for female or male consumers. The researchers estimated inventors’ gender by matching their names with a dictionary of first names and, based on public birth records, assigned the gender most often associated with that name.
They found that teams made up of women inventors were 35% more likely to have patents for female consumers than all-male teams. At the same time, women inventors patented male-focused ideas at similar rates as all-male teams.
None of the female researchers STAT spoke to were surprised at the study’s findings. “Women bring their unique perspectives, their interests, their preferences,” said Ding.
Mercedes Meyer, a patent lawyer who developed a toolkit for companies to improve gender diversity in intellectual property, adds that women also bring solutions to the issues they face in their daily lives. “We all will patent and innovate around the problems that confront us.”
Because there are still fewer women inventing, many solutions to these everyday problems may never come to light. “It’s the loss of solutions that could help 50% of the population in the world,” said Meyer, who was not involved in the study.
There is not one single root cause for these findings, Meyer said. Women are underrepresented in the biomedical sciences and also face systemic barriers and a lack of support to commercialize their ideas. “There’s multiple levels at which the barriers need to be broken down in order to get real equity,” said Rebecca Shansky, a neuroscientist at Northeastern University who was not involved with the study.
First, starting at an early age, society needs to encourage women and girls to be innovators and entrepreneurs, said Arlyne Simon, a platform architect at Intel and founder of Abby Invents, an invention education company that developed a picture book to build awareness about the world of innovation in multicultural kids.
Once women are in positions where they can invent, they need strategic mentoring and training to help them commercialize their ideas, said Meyer. Simon, who has a patent for a blood test for cancer patients, emphasized the importance of mentoring and having a support network to guide women in this field. For example, being mentored by a network of inventors could help women identify potential ideas and navigate the tricky and obscure patenting process.
Finally, the patenting process itself needs to be evaluated for bias, these experts say. Research indicates that patent applications from women are more likely to be rejected than those from men, pointing to potential biases within the system. Addressing these barriers may effectively diversify the inventor pool, which could in turn change the inventions that exist to improve women’s health.
Still, researchers point out that categorizing patents based on gender may be problematic. “When we’re thinking about invention along gender lines, it reinforces gendered products, which itself is problematic in the health related industry,” said Cassidy Sugimoto, chair of the School of Public Policy at Georgia Tech who was not involved in the research. This may also exclude nonbinary and transgender individuals, she adds. “At some point we do need to move past the binary and begin to look at some of the wider spectrums of gender.”
Koning acknowledged this limitation in the study, saying his team only looked at patented products that catered to traditional binary differences between men and women.
Even in light of the loss of inventions that could benefit many women, there is cause for hope. The new study as well as a report published by the United States Patent and Trademark Office show that the gap is narrowing. Now researchers hope this study will spur similar analyses across different fields and demographics and provide the evidence to support diversification efforts by highlighting their importance for society.
“It is beyond a social justice issue,” said Sugimoto. “This actually has ramifications for society that are fairly consequential.”