17 March 2012

Women and Patents

Consider this abstract:
We investigate women's underrepresentation among holders of commercialized patents: only 5.5% of holders of such patents are female. Using the National Survey of College Graduates 2003, we find only 7% of the gap is accounted for by women's lower probability of holding any science or engineering degree, because women with such a degree are scarcely more likely to patent than women without. Differences among those without a science or engineering degree account for 15%, while 78% is accounted for by differences among those with a science or engineering degree. For the latter group, we find that women's underrepresentation in engineering and in jobs involving development and design explain much of the gap; closing it would increase U.S. GDP per capita by 2.7%.  [Emphasis added.]
The concluding assertion is obviously false.  This is simply because patents are not distributed randomly.  The system is opt-in, which introduces self-selection bias (which may possibly be particularly influential at the corporate level), and patents have to be approved.

The latter qualification is especially important, because inventing new things and creating meaningful innovations generally requires a high degree of intelligence and knowledge.  Since men have the flatter distribution curve when it comes to intelligence, it stands to reason that men should naturally receive more patents because they have more of the elite intelligence that generally correlates with invention and innovation.
Incidentally, this also renders the conclusion void as well, since it is predicated on the assumption that patents are essentially distributed randomly.  Since they are not, and since women are not in a position to perform equally in regards to innovation, it is illogical to assert that closing the engineering and R&D gap will solve the patent inequality problem, and correspondingly increase GDP.


  1. Focusing only on patent numbers is misleading as well and it would be impossible to get a clear picture of "improving" sexual equality (which is, itself, impossible).

    We tend to have an image of the lone inventor working in his cellar coming up with the next billion dollar idea. That rarely happens. Innovative ideas are looked at strategically by companies and can take 3 routes:
    1. Keep it a trade (company) secret - no way to tally sexual (in)equality.
    2. Publish it in a trade journal to prevent your competitors from patenting it.
    3. Apply for a patent.

    Due to the cost of #3 (paperwork, lawyers, etc.), companies are very careful to consider all aspects of an idea before resorting to a patent application, mostly from the business perspective. (Of course, some office politics are always at play.) Since it is truly a free market/business review without any influence of government quotes (yet!), it's quite telling that most inventors on patents are men. There is no influence of PC motivated themes sifting innovative ideas.

    I know of what I speak, having a few US patents myself (i.e. 'having' = I'm the inventor but signed away ownership to my employer) and many more ideas which went through the company process and did not go on to a patent application.

  2. @Carnivore- Thanks for commenting. I don't have enough direct knowledge of how corporations decide to patent, but I do know that there is quite a self-selection bias inherent in corporate patents. Thus, trying to analyze non-random outcomes with random analysis makes about as much sense as it sounds like it would.