Lost Marie Curies: The Patent Gap & What We Can Do About It

Marie Curie in the lab. Photo via WikiMedia

Marie Curie in the lab. Photo via WikiMedia

Earlier this year, both the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and Congress turned their attention to gender diversity in inventing, specifically women’s patenting. This discussion was spurred by the release of the USPTO report on the status of women patent inventors over the past 40 years. The report showed that, though there has been an increase in the percentage of patents with at least one women inventor credited (7% in the 1980s vs. 21% in 2016), when patent inventors are examined in the aggregate, women made up 12% in 2016 – only 2% higher than the percentage of women patent inventors in 2000, 15 years earlier. These findings prompted Congress to hold hearings to discuss the report and find ways to remedy the problem. They discovered the reasons behind this trend are more multifaceted than one might guess.

Nicole Galli

Nicole Galli

It has been argued that the lack of women with STEM degrees is the leading cause of women’s absence in a multitude of innovative areas, including patenting. However, a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research showed that only 7% of the gender gap in patenting is accounted for by the lower share of women with any science or engineering degree. Instead, 78% of the gap is explained by lower female patenting among holders of a science or engineering degree. Therefore, the patent gap is not merely due to the fact that women do not exist in STEM fields, but that they are frequently overlooked and marginalized once they are in those fields or, alternatively, do not seek patenting for a variety of reasons.

Congressional testimony included experiences of female scientists and engineers being passed over for funding or simply having their male colleagues take credit for their work, both which hinder their ability to patent ideas. Further, the high cost of patenting and lack of resources for individual inventors and women-owned businesses pursuing patents compound those barriers. There is also sometimes an element of female self-doubt at play, whereby women undervalue their ideas, specifically “discount[ing] the novelty and usefulness of their inventions.” The most shocking factor for me, as an intellectual property lawyer, was that women inventors are less likely to see the value in patenting generally and do not tend to invest the time in pursuing it.    

While many of the institutional obstacles and biases outlined require significant cultural and structural changes, understanding the importance of registering a patent (or pursuing any other form of IP protection) simply requires education. Firstly, it is critical to emphasize the economic power of intellectual property, and how much value is left on the table by not protecting it. Ocean Tomo, an IP financial services firm, conducted a study showing that “intangible assets,” which are mainly IP, represent approximately 84% of the value of S&P 500 companies. Therefore, anyone conducting research or creating inventions would be remiss to allow others to profit off of it. 

Machines, tools, processes, and other equipment involved in STEM-related research and exploration are all items that could be patentable. Alternatively, some inventions and creations are best protected by trade secrets and/or copyrights, and your overall brand can be protected through use of a trademark. Determining whether you have something that can be protected as well as developing and implementing the best plan for protection is where an IP lawyer will be your best asset, as this area of the law is particularly nuanced. In addition, seeking legal counsel after your work has been used by others can be much more costly and, in some cases, the damage will already have been done. So please, don’t let your ideas go to waste, and make sure you get credit where credit is due!  

Nicole D. Galli is the founder and Managing Partner of the Law Offices of N.D. Galli LLC, a boutique law firm with offices in Philadelphia and New York. Nicole focuses her practice on commercial litigation, including all forms of intellectual property (IP) litigation, and IP counseling, especially regarding trade secret protection. 

Emily Griesing, Chief Strategy Officer at Bossible, co-authored this article.

Header image courtesy WikiMedia.

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