What do bullet proof vests, fire escapes, windshield wipers, and laser printers all have in common? Besides being props in Fight Club (a twisted examination of masculinity), they were all invented by women. This riddle also serves as an interesting anecdote since women are not typically associated with inventing things. Tyler Durden, the antagonist in Fight Club, makes this observation: “we’re a generation of men raised by women. I’m wondering if another woman is really the answer we need.” Yes, Tyler-we do need women, and we need them inventing and patenting things.
In my short 5 years as a patent attorney, focusing primarily on the mechanical arts, I have worked with fewer than 5 women inventors. I’ve searched and read hundreds of patents, and only a handful of them have women inventors. More tenured colleagues at Hovey Williams have had similar experiences. So are women just not inventing things and pursuing patents?
It turns out women are increasingly applying for patents at a steady but slow rate. According to a study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, 15% of patents had at least one female inventor in the year 2000, which increased to 19% in 2010. If this trend continues, patenting parity won’t be achieved until 2090. Categories often cited as being dominated by women (e.g., apparel, jewelry, and ornaments) actually only have 25% as women inventors. On the other hand, some fields have reached parity or are close to it. For example, in 2010, the patent field of “Organic Compounds” reached 43% and “Chemistry: Natural Resins or Derivatives” was at 50%.
Does it matter who is inventing what? Not particularly, but what matters is that a significant portion of our population is not developing new technology, or at least is not reaping the benefits provided by the patent system. Since patents can be considered as a “social contract” between inventors and society, it follows that society is at a worse position when women, or any class of individuals for that matter, aren’t inventing and obtaining patents.
What can be done about it? We should continue to encourage women to enter STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Mathematics) fields. Outreach programs could focus on educating women in business and engineering to the benefits of having a strong patent and intellectual property portfolio. We also need to change the perception that inventing is for men only-women can be mad scientists too!