Gender and Resource Inequality in Innovation

innovative ideas illustration

Story by Jack Croft
Photo by iStock/Fedora Chiosea

Gauri Subramani found that the U.S. patent process reveals an underrepresentation of women in entrepreneurship.

When it comes to patent applications submitted in the United States, there isn’t just a gender gap‚ there’s a chasm between male and female inventors that continues to widen as the application process winds its way to granted patents.

A study—conducted by Gauri Subramani, assistant professor of management at Lehigh College of Business‚ and co-authors Abhay Aneja‚ assistant professor of law at Berkeley Law‚ and Oren Reshef‚ assistant professor of strategy at Washington University of St. Louis—examined patent applications submitted in the United States between 2001–2012. Since patents provide a measurable way to evaluate innovation‚ the research provides valuable insights into the underrepresentation of women in innovation and entrepreneurship.

The study found that female inventors appeared on fewer than 15% of patent applications, while slightly more than 85% had all-male authorship.

That’s only the beginning.

Responding to Rejection

Subramani calls the patent process “highly iterative‚” and rejection is a fact of life for most applicants. Just over 80% of all applicants receive what’s termed an “initial rejection‚” but applicants can follow up and continue to pursue a patent. In fact‚ 63% of applications that receive an initial rejection are eventually granted a patent.

However‚ because the overwhelming majority of applications are from individual male inventors or all-male teams‚ that overall figure really represents their experience with the process. When Subramani and her colleagues broke out the data for female applicants‚ they found a different story."

While 86.5% of men respond to an initial rejection and continue the process, only 78% of women do the same.

“This has downstream implications for what ends up actually getting granted‚” Subramani says. “Fewer than 50% of rejected applications with female authorship end up converting to a patent‚ whereas more than 63% of rejected applications with male authorship end up converting to a patent. What happens after this initial rejection really matters for the number of patents that exist.”

One of the factors the researchers examined to explain the difference in how female and male inventors and their teams respond to initial rejection is institutional support—affiliation with a firm‚ guidance from a specialized patent attorney‚ and wage gaps between men and women within industries and states where the male or female inventors live and work.

“When we looked at employer and attorney effects‚ there was a significant reduction in the gap between male and female inventors if they used an attorney or if their applications were affiliated with firms‚” Subramani says. “This is suggestive evidence that the environment in which inventors operate is partly what’s driving this differential fallout by gender.

“It’s important to note that this doesn’t completely alleviate the gap. It reduces the gap‚ but there still remains a gap‚ even if a female inventor is affiliated with a firm or uses an attorney in a state that has a low wage gap. Overall‚ we found that female majority and all-female teams were significantly less likely to continue in the patent process and be granted a patent if they received an initial rejection.”

Subramani says there is evidence that women are more likely to develop innovations that serve the needs of other women. Teams that include women are more likely to receive biomedical patents on female-focused inventions. “If female inventors are underrepresented‚” says Subramani‚ “then women more broadly are underserved because the innovations that can serve women’s specific needs are less likely to actually exist.”

Percent of U.S. Patent Applications Submitted by Gender

  • 85% Males
  • 15% Females

Why it Matters

“If we have 50% of the population underrepresented in innovative activities, that means we’re missing out on their contributions,” Subramani says. “From a macroeconomic perspective, this is a huge loss in potential economic growth.”

Listen to more from Prof. Subramani.