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Patents Awarded to Women Rise, Particularly in Academia

U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria, Virginia (A. Kotok)

8 July 2015. Patents issued to women are still a minority at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, but their percentages increased over the past 4 decades, notably among recipients at academic institutions. A team of information technology and library science researchers from Indiana University, Simmons College in Boston, University of Washington, and Université de Montréal in Quebec, Canada published its findings in a recent issue of the journal PLoS One.

The researchers examined some 4.6 million utility patents issued by USPTO between 1976 and 2013, looking particularly for women’s names as inventors. Utility patents are issued for new machines, processes, or compositions of matter, and comprise about 90 percent of all patents granted by USPTO. A little more than half (54%) of the patents examined were granted to inventors in the U.S., with 19 percent to Japanese inventors, 7 percent to inventors from Germany, and between 2 and 3 percent each to inventors from the U.K., France, South Korea, Taiwan, and Canada.

In 1976, less than 3 percent of patents issued by USPTO went to women, with few differences — between 2 and 3 percent each — when broken down by the invention’s owner: industry, university, or individuals. By 2013, women patent recipients are still a distinct minority, with only about 11 percent of the patents issued listing a woman as an inventor.

Among patent owners, however, distinct differences appear in 2013. By that year, women account for 18 percent of patents owned by universities, compared to 12 percent for individuals and 10 percent for industry. By 2013, women at universities account for higher proportions of patents in chemistry, mechanical and electrical engineering, and instrumentation than women inventors in industry or as individuals. In a catch-all category of other fields that includes consumer goods and games, individual women inventors are issued more patents than women at universities or in industry.

The higher rates of women inventors academia surprised first author Cassidy Sugimoto, professor of informatics at Indiana University. “We had thought it might fall lower since patenting in still considered ‘optional’ in terms of promotion in academia,” says Sugimoto in a university statement, “although it’s increasingly encouraged.”

The authors point to the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 that gives universities intellectual property rights to discoveries from federally-funded research and the subsequent increase in campus technology transfer offices as likely reasons for the higher rate of women inventors at academic institutions.

To gauge the impact of women inventors in their fields, the research team calculated the number of citations of patents by other patents, and found women inventors are cited less often than men across all three types of patent owners, but the gap between men and women patent citations is largest for universities and smallest for industry. On the other hand, women on average have more co-inventors than men, across all types of patent owners and technologies, which suggests women are better at collaborating with other inventors than men.

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