In addition to engineering degrees and senior academic positions, there’s something else women in science aren’t obtaining as often as men: patents. Dr. Sue Rosser, a researcher and now Provost of San Francisco State University, finds this worrying. It’s an all too familiar pattern, especially when funding and prestige seem to be moving in this direction, toward the commercialization of the products of research.
Credits: Lego patent,1958 by dkpto on Flickr
The fact that women are not entering the playing field here is a troubling indicator, Dr. Rosser believes. It’s reminiscent of the days when her male colleagues in grad school were trained to write grants, but the women weren’t offered the same opportunity. She hears similar stories today in her case studies of women working in research, like one who reported that only the male grad students in the lab were trained in the patenting process. In the MIT biology department, the rate of male faculty patenting their research is about 70%. For their female counterparts, it’s only 30%.
It’s the same everywhere: Dr. Rosser shared data from Rainer Frisch shows the trend from 1993 to 2001. The countries leading on patent holder gender balance were Spain (17.5% women) and New Zealand (14.0%). Meanwhile, other countries that we may consider more on the forefront of science were actually very low on this metric. (See: Germany close to the bottom with 5.9%.) The US has improved over the years, but still came in at only 11.1%.
So, why aren’t women obtaining patents at the same rate as men? What are the challenges to be aware of and find ways to counter? Sue Rosser identifies several factors gleaned from her research:
- - Fewer opportunities exist for women to discover or pursue the tech transfer process.
- - Mentoring opportunities and networking typically follow the “like supports like” principle.
- - Classic issues of work-family balance and gender stereotypes persist.
- - Women can be more risk-averse and go after commercialization less.
- - Geography: The hotspots of tech transfer are few and far between, and many women scientists—significantly more than men—have a partner in research, compounding the geographical complications.
As with all of these issues, Dr. Rosser points out, “It’s partly down to women’s feelings about the matter, and partly what goes on with the culture.” That just means that, across the board, there are things different parties can do to improve the situation—including those VCs and corporations who can make the commercialization of research happen.