The Academic Advantage: Gender Disparities in Patenting

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Innovation is critical to economic development [1] and depends upon the full participation of the scientific workforce [2]. Yet, the growing field of “innovation studies” [3] demonstrates that there are many disparities in the exploitation of human capacity for innovation. Two particularly well-noted areas are the dearth of academic and female innovators [45]. The response to this lack of innovation in the academic sector has been to stress academic entrepreneurship, which encompasses the varied ways in which faculty at educational institutions engage in innovative and high risk activities which have the potential for financial rewards for the individual or the institution with which they are affiliated [6]. This is most typically operationalized as commercialization of science activities such as patenting [2], which was heavily promoted following the enactment of the Bayh-Dole Act in 1980 in the United States and similar initiatives in other countries [5].

Historical studies have shown that the rate of female patenting from 1637 to the mid-20thcentury failed to exceed 2% of total patenting [7]. Contemporary studies suggest that women may continue to be underrepresented [489]; however, studies on rates of female patenting are largely monodisciplinary, localized, and lack explicit connections to the types of settings where the patenting is conducted. This study addresses this gap by providing a comprehensive analysis of 4.6 million utility patents issued between 1976 and 2013 by the United States Patent and Trade Office (USPTO). The data includes 10.8 million inventors and 4.2 million assignees (owners of the property of the patents that are different from inventors).

We analyzed gender disparities in patenting by country, technological area, and type of assignee using the 4.6 million utility patents issued between 1976 and 2013 by the United States Patent and Trade Office (USPTO). Our analyses of fractionalized inventorships demonstrate that women’s rate of patenting has increased from 2.7% of total patenting activity to 10.8% over the nearly 40-year period. Our results show that, in every technological area, female patenting is proportionally more likely to occur in academic institutions than in corporate or government environments. However, women’s patents have a lower technological impact than that of men, and that gap is wider in the case of academic patents. We also provide evidence that patents to which women—and in particular academic women—contributed are associated with a higher number of International Patent Classification (IPC) codes and co-inventors than men. The policy implications of these disparities and academic setting advantages are discussed.

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