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Female inventors hold just a quarter of US biomedical patents

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Few of the US patents granted for biomedical inventions go to female researchers

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There are well-known biases that limit the number of women in science and technology. Now evidence has shown that fewer women are named on biomedical patents, which appears to have led to a reduced number of patented technologies designed to address problems specifically or disproportionately affecting women.

Rembrand Koning at Harvard Business School and his colleagues used machine learning to analyse more than 444,000 biomedical patents filed in the US between 1976 and 2010.

Algorithms analysed the text of drug and medical patents, attributing each with a male or female tag depending on what the text contained. For instance, texts mentioning “female organs” or “female genetics” were tagged as female. The researchers also cross-checked the gender of named inventors whenever possible.

The proportion of patents awarded to inventor teams containing at least as many women as men has increased over the years, but not by much. Some 6.3 per cent of all patents awarded in 1976 fell within this category; in 2010, the equivalent figure was 16.2 per cent. In total, women were listed as co-inventors in just a quarter of all patents filed during the period analysed.

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“We know there’s just a lot of sexism in society,” says Koning. “And we know that women face barriers just becoming scientists, and they face barriers when commercialising their ideas.”

Koning and his colleagues also analysed what the patents in the study were intended to achieve. Patents filed by all-female teams were a third more likely to focus on issues concerned with women’s health than those filed by all-male groups.

Teams in which most of the co-inventors were women were 18 per cent more likely to have filed patents for technologies that would help women.

Had there been equality in the number of men and women applying for patents, Koning and his colleagues estimate that there would have been roughly 6500 more female-focused inventions successfully patented between 1976 and 2010.

“Not only are women’s needs and problems invisible, when fewer women get patents and commercialise their ideas, this reinforces the stereotype that women do not create things of value and are neither inventors nor entrepreneurs,” says Jessica Lai at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand.

Journal reference: Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.aba6990

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