At a recent innovation keynote speech I gave to Fortune 500 women executives, sponsored by Cognizant Technology Solutions, we examined some of the reasons fewer than 15 percent of all patents in the world are secured by women inventors. This isn’t patents held by a single woman, but patents that have at least one woman listed on them. Fewer than 8% of all patents have a single woman as the primary patent holder.

Women inventors

This is still a dismal number, but better than it was 40 years ago when only 3 % of patent holders in the world were women.

In doing some research into why this number is so low, I discovered that, even though things have changed enormously in society for women, we still have a long way to go when it comes to intellectual property ownership.

Women and the patent law

When patent law was passed in 1790, women were granted the same privileges as men. Even though single women could do whatever they wanted with their patents, married women didn’t have the same rights. Their husbands owned everything, including their patents. It would take another 50 years for the laws to change and 130 years for women to even get the right to vote!

So, now that women can vote, own property, and invent, why don’t they? Between scientific studies and my own personal polling, I discovered that the answer wasn’t what I thought it was. The obvious answer is that there is still a very small number of women in STEM careers. But that doesn’t answer the question about why there are so few women inventors.

According to an article written by Karen Frenkel for the Association for Computing Machinery in 2013, “women with such degrees are barely more likely to patent than women who lack them.”

Patent and trade dress holder

I’m a patent and trade dress holder, but I certainly don’t have any kind of background in science or engineering. My product isn’t technology based. But you still don’t have to have a STEM degree to have a technology based patent.

Hedy Lamarr

A great example of this is Hedy Lamarr, inventor of spread spectrum technology for use in radio guided torpedoes. Her background was the same as mine…actor. She had no formal degree in science or engineering. She simply saw a problem that needed solving, (safely controlling torpedoes with a radio signal), and was able to apply the system of electro-mechanical technology of player piano rolls to come up with a solution.

World Intellectual Property Organization

The World Intellectual Property Organization, global experts in IP policy, completed their study of gender in inventing and found higher numbers of women inventors in biotech and pharmaceuticals. The women patent holders in biotech was an impressive 58% and in pharmaceuticals it was an equally impressive number at 55%.

But the least women patent holders were found in mechanical elements at 11%, transport at 13%, Machine tools at 14% and engines at 15%.

According to WIPO Director General Francis Gurry, “The new global data gives us a baseline for understanding the role of gender in the filing of international patent applications, which is one metric used in measuring a country’s innovative capacity. These data prove that a gender gap exists and it needs to be addressed”.

Women inventors don’t get the same recognition

This brings me to why I feel there aren’t more women inventors. It’s the same reason there aren’t more women in STEM careers. As far as we’ve come in society for women, there is still a lot of bias that remains. When I ask people in the audience to name an inventor, I rarely get anyone who names a woman inventor. Women have invented all kinds of things that have shaped our world, but they don’t get the same recognition male inventors do.

Girls aren’t encouraged to invent

Also, girls aren’t encouraged to invent. One way to change that is to make inventing cool. Get girls involved at an early age. After leading several Girl Scout creativity workshops, I can tell you that I was very impressed at how creative and innovative the girls were. We need more of that. More programs for girls to get them involved and excited about inventing. Women have a lot to contribute to the world and we need more women inventors.

We need more women inventors!

Inventions are created because someone had a problem that no one else had solved. So women, the next time you come across a problem that no one else has solved… invent it yourself.  Because your invention just might change the world.