Why Don’t Women Patent?

In Why Don’t Women Patent?, a recent NBER paper, Jennifer Hunt et al. present a stark fact: Only 5.5% of the holders of commercialized patents are women. One might think that this is explained by the relative lack of women with science and engineering degrees but Hunt et al. find that “women with such a degree are scarcely more likely to patent than women without.” Instead, most of the difference is “accounted for by differences among those with a science or engineering degree” especially the fact that women are underrepresented in patent-intensive fields such as electrical and mechanical engineering and in development and design.

Predictably, the authors do not ask why women might self-select into non patent-intensive fields, perhaps because this would require at least a discussion of politically incorrect questions. The failure to investigate these questions leads to some dubious conclusions, notably:

Closing the [gender] gap among S&E degree holders would increase commercialized patents by 24% and GDP per capita by

Right; and since only 10% of construction workers are women, closing the gender gap would result in many more houses. In the case of construction, my suspicion is that gender equality would reduce not increase the amount of construction. In the case of patents, I am not sure what would happen, indeed the point is that without a much better understanding of what causes differences in patent proclivities one shouldn’t jump to conclusions.

The quick jump from patents to innovation is also unwarranted–there is very little evidence that patents increase innovation. Moreover, most innovations are not patented. If we measured innovation more closely it wouldn’t surprise me if women accounted for a larger share of innovation than they do of patents.

By the way, both my wife and I are working to rectifiy these statistics, she has half-a-dozen patents and I have none.

Addendum: Freakonomics/Marketplace has a podcast on this topic.


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