Women and Patents: the EPO study analyzes Gender Gap in the Innovation Field

On November 8th 2022, EPO published an updated report on the gender gap in the innovation field, based on the data on patents at its disposal, with the aim to provide key indications on the progress of inclusion of women in Europe.

The data

The report shows that, in the last decades, the rate of inclusion of women in the STEM context (abbreviation of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) increased in all European countries. Nevertheless, the number of female inventors is still persistently lower compared to men.

The average percentage of female inventors in Europe increased from 2% (data related to 1970) to 13,2% in 2019. Even so, the European data is lower than the one found in the USA (15%), in China (26,8%) and in South Korea (28,3%).

Among the EPO member states, Latvia has the highest percentage of female inventors (30,6%), followed by Portugal (26,8%), Croatia (25,8%), Spain (23,2%) and Lithuania (21,4%). The lowest data have been registered in Germany (10,0%), Luxembourg (10,0%), Liechtenstein (9,6%) and Austria (8,0%). Italy is in 16th position, with a percentage of female inventors of 14,3% (slightly higher compared to the European average).

The Italian figure on gender gap is better that the European average if we focus on data obtained by universities and research institutes, since in Italy 50% of PhD students in STEM subjects are women. The EPO report highlights that universities and European public research institutes have, in average, 19,4% rate of female inventors, while companies 10%. In Italy the rate of female inventors in universities and public research institutes is 28%, while in companies is of 19,5%.

Moreover, the report reveals that Chemistry is the European sector with the highest percentage of female inventors (22% against 5,2% of mechanical engineering).

The possible causes

The study reveals that the presence of women gradually decreases with career progression. As a matter of fact, gender gap gradually increases as we move from the analysis of data related to PhD students, to data related to inventors permanently employed.

According to the report, this figure confirms that women in the EPO countries meet increasing obstacles in the career progression, with the result that female inventors, on average, produce less inventions compared to men also due to their lower seniority.

The poor participation of women in patent processes is attributed to a series of factors, such as culture, educational systems and job market of different countries. But, above all, it was highlighted that women choosing any type of career must pass a harder selection compared to men. This may create an invisible barrier filtering the access of STEM graduate women to research jobs and then to top management position (both in universities and private bodies).

It was then revealed that women in universities have less industry connections and are confined in more traditional academic career models compared to men. This happens also in companies research sectors, where women earn less than men even though they contribute in the same way to the development of high-quality inventions.

Conclusions of the EPO study

The contribution of women in science and technology increased in the last decades, but equality with men is still far. As highlighted by the EPO report, due to the gender gap in the innovation field, society is losing many goods, pharmaceuticals and services. In fact, an American study mentioned by the EPO shows that the USA may have four times more patents if women, minorities members and children of low-income families could become inventors with the same rhythm as men. The same study shows that the lack of female inventors results into a lower width and inclusivity of technology and medicine: for example, from the analysis of bio-medical patents in the USA it was concluded that, with high probability, patents of male inventors focus more on male specific health problems, whereas those of female inventors (lower) on female specific health problems.

The increase of women participation in science remains therefore an important challenge for Europe, beside a key factor for its sustainability and competitiveness.

Ilaria Feriti