Every woman knows it: On average, she gets paid less than men do for comparable work and is more likely to get overlooked for promotions. Now, a study in tomorrow's Science shows that if she's a scientist, she is also far less likely to get her findings patented, even if her work is just as top notch as that of her male colleagues'.
A successful invention can nicely supplement a scientist's income, or even make them fabulously wealthy. To find out how richly women participate in this area compared to men, organizational sociologist Toby Stuart at the Harvard Business School and colleagues examined how many patents women researchers are getting.
The team culled from various databases, reaching back 35 years. In all, the researchers examined the patent history of 4227 scientists who had published for at least 5 years after receiving their doctorates. Less than 6% of the 903 women had patents, compared to 13% of the 3324 men. Moreover, the male inventors had nearly three patents each on average, and the female inventors less than two. Even after accounting for the number of papers each researcher published and the fields they worked in (fields less prone to patents might attract more women), the team determined that women patent at a rate 40% that of men.
Additional analyses indicated the women's work was no less "patentable" than the men's. The team found no difference between the genders in the quality of research, based on the journals they published in (although women appeared to publish in slightly better journals), nor the impact of the work, based on how often their work was cited by other researchers. Stuart attributes the difference in patenting to interviews that showed that fewer women are involved in science advisory boards and less likely to know people in the biotechnology industry. This results in less exposure to the commercial culture of science, he says. To level the field, Stuart advocates having male faculty members invite more women into their networks and recommending women for science advisory boards. "It's hard to break into these things," he says.
Still, Elizabeth Ivey, a physicist at the University of Hartford in Connecticut and immediate past national president of the Association for Women in Science, is optimistic about the future, noting that the study also showed that there is less of a patent disparity between young male and female scientists. "The gap will narrow as you bring more women into the pipeline," she says.