Gender Inequality

Women inventors make gains, but gender gaps remain

Female chemical engineer develops clean energy storage solutions.

There is still a significant gap between the number of male and female inventors. Image: Unsplash/ThisisEngineering RAEng

Victoria Masterson
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Gender Inequality

  • More women are being named in scientific patents – but men are still well ahead, the latest data show.
  • Only 17% of inventors holding international patents were women in 2022, while 83% were men, the United Nations finds.
  • And women remain “significantly underrepresented” in STEM occupations, according to the World Economic Forum’s latest Global Gender Gap Report.

Women are making gains as inventors.

But men are still ahead by some margin, the latest data suggests.

An analysis of records from the United States Patent and Trademark Office, the government agency that grants patents and registers trademarks in the US, shows women have increased their participation in scientific patenting across all areas.

Women in electrical engineering are progressing the fastest. The share of women inventors in this sector doubled from 5% to 10% between 2000 and 2022.

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Chemistry has the highest share of women inventors, at 18%. Women inventors also represent 16% of design patents.

Mechanical engineering has the smallest share of women inventors, at 5% in 2022.

Meanwhile, women represented only 10.9% of all US patents in 2022, though this share is still up from 7.2% in 2020.

Inventors with female names on granted USPTO patents, by technology area and issue year: 2000–22.
Chemistry is the leading sector for women inventors in the US. Image: National Science Board
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Women in science and engineering

The figures are detailed in a report by US statistical agency the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES). It outlines several key factors linked with increasing the number of women in science and engineering who become patented inventors, including collaborating with university advisors in graduate programmes.

“This collaboration is associated with higher rates of first-time patenting by women, identifying a role for mentorship at universities in the invention process,” the NCSES reports.

The patenting analysis echoes the findings of an annual stocktake by the United Nations (UN) of gender equality across its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

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Only 17% of inventors holding international patents were women in 2022, while 83% were men, it finds.

Women also account for less than a quarter of jobs globally in science, engineering and technology. And women held only one in three research posts in 2020.

Progress on the Sustainable Development Goals: The gender snapshot 2023, calls for progress including growing women’s participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines, and challenging social biases.

Participation of women in research and STEM fields remains far from parity
Women represented only 17% of international patent holders in 2022. Image: UN Women
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Women inventors are almost 40 years behind men in patenting

It will take women until 2061 to achieve gender parity in international patenting, based on current trends, according to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).

Women inventors were behind only 23% of all international applications between 1999 and 2020, while men were involved in 96%, The Global Gender Gap in Innovation and Creativity report finds.

Biotechnology, pharmaceuticals and food chemistry had the highest rates of women inventors, with “far fewer” women inventors in mechanical engineering.

By region, Latin America and the Caribbean perform strongly, with women representing 21% of all listed inventors. In Asia, women inventors represent 17% of the total, while in North America and Europe, women account for 15% and 14% respectively of all listed inventors. For Africa and Oceania, the figure is 13%.

“Much work” is still needed to ensure women in all countries have equal opportunities, the WIPO says. This should include policies and actions to stimulate gender diversity in teams – and more research into the societal and technological factors fuelling the gender gap in patenting.

Women inventor rate (WIR) by region and time periods.
Latin America and the Caribbean have a higher representation of women inventors than other regions. Image: WIPO

Women are underrepresented in STEM roles

The World Economic Forum notes that women remain “significantly underrepresented” in STEM occupations, in its Global Gender Gap Report 2023.

This is an important set of well-paid jobs expected to grow in significance and scope in the future, the Forum adds.

While a growing number of women STEM graduates are entering work in science, technology, engineering and mathematics roles, many of them leave after as little as a year, the report notes. This helps to explain why women currently account for 29.4% of entry-level workers in STEM jobs, but only between 12.4% and 17.8% of high-level leadership roles.

The Global Gender Gap Report has been measuring gender gaps since 2006 and in 2023 covers 146 countries.

The Forum helps to promote the critical role of women in science and technology through initiatives like the Technology Pioneers.

This is a community of early-stage start-ups from around the world involved in developing and deploying new technologies and innovations. In 2023, women chief executives led a third of the 100 companies invited to join the Technology Pioneers community.

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