Is the Lack of Women Patent Holders Hurting the US Economy?

In looking at the factors that contribute to economic growth, female patent holders are not usually top of the list. However,  in a paper published by Hunt et al. in the National Bureau of Economic Research titled Why are women underrepresented amongst patentees?1 the authors make a case that if the patenting gap between men and women were closed it would result in an increase in GDP per capita by 2.7%. These distinguished economists have stated a case for women patenting their ideas and discoveries that could have a more substantial impact on the US economy than almost every economic stimulus being contemplated today.

There are likely various reasons why men represent 50% of the population but are, according to the authors of this research 2.5 times more likely to patent something than their female counterparts.

A 2.7% increase in per capita GDP could dramatically change our trade deficit, quality of life and the overall world economy.

Those of you who follow my work know that I believe patents are extremely important, especially for startups. The protection granted by patents and intellectual property (IP) in general make a company more likely to be funded especially in the early stages when maybe all you have is IP. IP creates a barrier to entry for other companies wanting to do a similar or a copied idea, it gives one a tangible asset, which generally gives funders more comfort in making an investment especially in the early stages.

I also have my own thinking about women and patenting. I strongly feel that even though women and men have always had the contemporaneous right to patent their ideas and discoveries, which women historically lag behind in this process because of their inability early on to own the rights to their inventions and receive the economic benefits of their discoveries.

The US Patent Act of 1790 created the ability for anyone regardless of age or gender to protect an invention with a patent. The first woman to obtain a patent was Mary Kies who on May 5, 1809 received a patent for the method of weaving silk and straw together in a hat.  So while Kies’s patent would keep others from selling hats like hers, she could not own her patent or receive the money from the sales of her hats. The patent office allows for “any person or persons” to obtain a patent, however Mary could not benefit from hers due to the presence of COVERTURE.

Under coverture, a woman has no individual legal or economic rights, and her existence is covered by that of her husband. Women could not own property or goods, or enter into contracts. This was true in the US until approximately 1845 when New York State allowed women to own their patents and the money derived through their patents. This NY law was the first instance in the US where women were allowed their own economy.

This stands in stark contrast to many other countries in the world such as Sweden, France and Spain, that historically granted levels of allowance for women to participate in business. Even Russia granted women the right to a separate economy in 1753 long before Maine in 1824 allowed women to own and manage property, when their spouse was incapacitated.

While we so often attribute this patenting gap to a lack of women in STEM, Hunt argue that this fact only explains a portion of this gap. Using data from the 2003 National Survey of College Graduates (NSCG), collected under the auspices of the National Science Foundation, they examine both the numbers of patents granted to men and women and the number of licensed or sold patents (commercialized) by gender and degree.

They conclude that women are much less likely to be granted a patent than men, and are somewhat less likely to commercialize or license the patents they are granted. Because women with a degree in STEM (they use S&E in lieu of STEM) patent little more than other women, increasing the share of women in S&E would not greatly increase patenting. They also conclude that increasing the number of women with S&E would account for only 7% of the gender gap in commercialized patents. They further conclude and herein lies the key –  that the greatest disparity, 78%, is due to the patenting gap among holders of S&E degrees.

This, within group S&E degreed gender gap, signals that just having more women in STEM will not necessarily close the patenting gap. As stated earlier this gender patenting gap is economically very significant and that closing the gap among S&E degree holders would increase commercialized patents by 24% and GDP per capita by 2.7%.

In examining these findings it is clear that the need for women to embrace their creativity and inventiveness is key not only for women to attain greater economic parity but also to spur on the economy in general. Coverture has placed women historically at a disadvantage, and we must begin to dissipate the remnants of those laws which held us back in society.

Closing this patent gap does not begin in a day, and I argue it needs to be a cultural shift, where women not only embrace their creativity, but the commercial viability and moreover the commercial need for their inventiveness. The contributions to society and to a thriving economy, in many way depends upon women claiming this share of the economy. It starts by teaching our young women that their ideas are important and have meaning in society. If they are looking to make a difference in peoples’ lives in the future, those differences can come not just through a manufacturing or service economy, but in a large way through an IDEAS economy.


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