Women of colour, particularly black and Hispanic women, are less likely to be granted patent rights than white women and men, even as they are leading in the growth of new female-owned businesses over the last two decades, according to a new study.
“The data show that people of color are particularly unlikely to hold intellectual property,” the Institute of Women’s Policy Research, a Washington think tank, said in a report released on Tuesday. Overall, less than 19% of patents issued by the US Patent and Trademark Office had a female inventor listed, according to the most recent data, compiled in 2015.
The report found that “despite being less likely to hold intellectual property rights than men, women-owned businesses still report actively engaging in innovative activities and generally do so at rates at least as high as men-owned business”.
Women are increasingly likely to own their own businesses and women of colour are playing their part in accelerating entrepreneurial activity. Firms owned by women grew from 847,000 to 1.1 million between 1997 and 2015, the study found. Moreover, the number of businesses owned by minority women accounted for more than two-thirds of the overall growth in that period, according to the study.
Yet the issue of the patent gap is “most severe for the minority groups, especially African-Americans and Hispanic women,” said Jeanne Curtis, director of the Cardozo/Google Project for Patent Diversity, a program financed in part by Alphabet Inc’s Google that is dedicated to increasing the number of patents issued to women and minorities.
“Innovation is how we come up with solutions to the most pressing challenges that are facing our society today,” said Jessica Milli, one of the report’s co-authors. Without input from all sexes and ethnic groups, some issues get overlooked and “you get solutions that only work for a small portion of the population”.
Intellectual property rights grant inventors exclusive rights to their creations for a given period. Patenting an inventor’s unique “creations of the mind” fosters an atmosphere of innovation as individuals are more likely to develop products if they can be guaranteed competitive advantage, the report said.
The report also shows that there is a link between patents and the success of a business. The under-representation of women is therefore “troubling because their limited access to that process holds them back, to some extent, from realising their full potential,” Milli said.
Although women’s representation in business has increased, it has been unequal, and they continue to be in the minority in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, collectively known as STEM. Those fields tend to result in more patents, so the smaller role of women in STEM-related industries has historically been a major factor in the patent gap.
While women account for nearly half of the American workforce, they represent only 29% of the STEM workforce. Less than 5% of white women, 2.8% of black women and 2.3% of American Indian women are employed in STEM.
Women’s historical exclusion from these fields is rooted in a number of factors. Representation of women’s roles in popular culture is one of them, said former patent office Director Michelle Lee, the first woman and Asian-American to hold the position.
“It’s only more recently that the image of being a computer scientist and a programmer is becoming increasingly interesting or 'sexy’, so to speak,” added Lee, who started a number of programs to lessen the patent gap while in office.
For instance, she created an Intellectual Property patch for the Girl Scouts to inspire innovation among its members, and provide an alternative from the “first-aid and sewing patches that I remember”.
Even women who have established themselves in STEM careers face significant barriers to obtaining a patent. With women on average earning 80.5 cents for every dollar earned by a man, they have less access to capital when it comes to starting their own businesses. Furthermore, African-American women and Hispanic women earn 67 and 62 cents to every dollar earned by a white man, according to the Institute of Women’s Policy Research.
Bias against women also plays its part in preventing women from acquiring funding and capital. Venture capitalists tend to prefer the same pitch delivered by a man than a woman, studies have shown.
A diverse and inclusive ecosystem is increasingly important in today’s market. “This is not just a social issue, it’s a matter of economic imperative,” Lee said.
Tech companies, reliant on an environment of aggressive innovation, are starting to take notice of the patent gap. In February, Google partnered with Cardozo Law School at Yeshiva University in New York to initiate a collaborative project designed to increase the number of US patents issued to women and minorities.
The programme aims to narrow the patent gap by providing free legal services and resources to under-represented groups to educate innovators about patent protection.
Curtis said that there are a number of initiatives that have garnered the involvement of many women of colour, such as Start Small, Think Big, based in New York and Beacon in Washington, that aims to encourage entrepreneurship in traditionally marginalised communities.
“As a country, we ought to do better, even if you think purely from an economic standpoint,” says Lee. — Bloomberg
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