It is a well-known fact that there is a big gender gap in the STEM sector. The Women into Science and Engineering (WISE) website reports that only 25% of the core-STEM workforce is made up of women [1].

At one of the recent workshops of the “Opening up photonics” series, Talat Yaqoob of Equate Scotland explained how this gap often starts forming at a very young age. Women have potentially limited their chances of working in STEM by the age of 15 because of stereotypes we are exposed to as children. Another big chunk is lost after graduating from higher education. According to the Equate Scotland website, only 27% of women who graduate in STEM subjects starts a career in the STEM industry [2]. And then again, only a handful makes it to senior roles.

But how does this translate into STEM research and innovation?

The UK Intellectual Property Office (IPO) has recently published a report on gender profiles in worldwide patenting [3].

Although patent applications are not a direct measure of innovation, they provide a measurable “output” of STEM industries.

Since the patent database does not store gender information nor any other protected diversity characteristic, gender was inferred by looking at inventors’ forenames as recorded on the database. Attribution errors are unavoidable, but care was taken to only attribute a gender when the confidence was high and exclude those names for which gender was undetermined.

The IPO found that between 1998 and 2017 the proportion of female inventors has almost doubled, going from 6.8% to 12.7%. In the last 20 years, in particular, there has been a considerable increase: in the early 2000s less than 15% of patent applications had at least one woman among the inventors, whereas in 2017 one in five patent applications had at least one. However, the proportion of applications with at least as many women as men was still very low in 2017, at around 8%.

So how does the UK compare? The UK is among the top countries with the highest number of inventors named on patent applications. The graph below shows a comparison with other countries that have the highest number of resident inventors. In the UK there has been a slow but constant increase from 8% to 11% between 2009 and 2017. This is still considerably lower than France which has had a stable 16% and China, where the proportion has grown to above 14% in the last 20 years, however it is a promising trend.

Figure 1: Annual trends in the proportion of female inventors by residence country (from the UK IPO report on gender profile in worldwide patenting, 2019 edition[3]).

When looking at the type of teams that contribute to inventions, it is clear that the gender disparity in all main patent territories is still very large, with less than 1% of the UK inventors being part of an all-female team versus an all-male team percentage of over 40%.

Figure 2: Inventor team constituency of patent applications for the countries with the highest number of resident inventors (from the UK IPO report on gender profile in worldwide patenting, 2019 edition[3]).

Interestingly, several countries in Africa and South America have a much higher proportion of female inventors, but a very low absolute number of inventors. Within Europe, Latvia, Romania and Serbia have the highest proportion of female, whereas Germany, the UK and Scandinavia have the lowest.

These data seem to go against expectations. Countries from continents with historically high gender inequality indexes have much higher proportions of women inventors when compared to western European countries, including the UK, Germany and France, which are generally ranked at the top in terms of gender equality [4].

The proportion of female inventorship is very different across different STEM disciplines and roughly reflects statistics of university graduates, with biotechnology, pharmaceutical and organic chemistry having the highest percentages of women (around 50%) and mechanical engineering having the lowest (around 10%).

There is also a significant disparity among female inventorship in academia and industry. In 2017 the proportion of female inventors for patents filed by companies was only around 10% versus a contribution of around 20% for applications filed by universities. This partly reflects the fact that female graduates abandon the STEM sector after graduating and partly may be due to women being less likely to advance in their career once they enter in the STEM industry. It is reassuring however that female inventorship is increasing at comparable rates in academia and industry.

The UK IPO report is not the only interesting study about female contributions to STEM inventorship that was published in 2019. Back in May, the World Intellectual Property Office (WIPO) announced the launch of a new collection of statistics on the number of female inventors listed in international applications [5]. The collection is available online and can be queried by year and country [6].

Both the UK IPO and the WIPO initiatives show that there has been a growing awareness around the gender gap of the STEM sector and increasingly larger efforts are being made by policymakers and STEM employers to address the issue. Diversity in the workplace is widely recognized as one of the factors that drives innovation and the economy of both Scotland and the UK will hopefully continue to benefit from the increased number of initiatives that are being implemented by organizations such as Equate Scotland, the WISE and Technology Scotland.

This post contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.

Where not otherwise stated, all the data reported in this blog post were sourced from the report “Gender profiles in worldwide patenting: an analysis of female inventorship (2019 edition)” prepared by the Economics, Research and Evidence team at the Intellectual Property Office. The full report is available at this link.