Gender and the Business of Innovation

January 19, 2017

Women account for just 15 percent of all listed inventors behind nine million patent applications across 182 countries. This data comes from a fascinating new paper by Gema Lax Martinez, Julio Raffo, and Kaori Saito of the World Intellectual Property Organization, which looks at the gender of inventors, and it suggests a lot of countries and firms have a long way to go in reaping the innovative potential of women inventors.

Looking across the 100 firms worldwide that patent the most, the variation in women’s participation in innovation is considerable. For the worst-performing seven firms over the 2011-15 period, fewer than 1 in 10 patent applications included a woman inventor: Schaeffler Technologies; ZF Friedrichshafen; BMW; Audi; Continental Automotive; Denso Corporation; and Peugeot-Citroen. (See the interactive table at the bottom of the post for a full list of firms.)

For ZF Friedrichshaffen, for example, 62 out of the 909 patents it applied for between 2011-5 included a woman inventor. That counts as progress—the firm listed no women at all on its patent applications between 1995 and 1999. All of these firms are automobile manufacturers, though some also focus on other sectors including aerospace technology, railways, and electronics. Perhaps they don’t understand that single women buy more new cars than single men and in the vast majority of families, women take part in the buying decision.

For the 15 best-performing innovative companies, more than 50 percent of applications involved a woman inventor—and five firms topped 60 percent: Hoffman-La Roche; Novartis; Heinkel; L’Oreal; and LG Chem, Ltd. In contrast to the worst performers, these firms specialize in healthcare and chemicals: pharmaceuticals (Novartis), diagnostics (F. Hoffman-La Roche), cosmetics (L’Oreal), and home care products (Heinkel).

Martinez and colleagues suggest there are a number of patterns in the data that help explain why some patenting institutions do so much better than others when it comes to gender balance:

  • There is a considerable variation across countries: China and the Republic of Korea see 50 percent of patent applications involving women compared to 29 percent in the US and below 20 percent in Germany, Italy, and Japan.
  • This is a particular issue for business: 48 percent of patent applications from academic institutions involve at least one woman inventor compared to 28 percent for the private sector.
  • The industry sector matters (as suggested by best and worst performers): 57 percent of biotech patent applications include a woman inventor compared to 15 percent of civil engineering patents. In general, life sciences do better than engineering and IT.
  • And related to the factors above, the type of organization matters: research suggests women patent more in firms which are flatter and more flexible (biotech, life sciences) than hierarchical.

On current rates, we won’t achieve gender parity in inventors until around 2080. It would be in the interests of both innovative firms and the countries that house them were we to pick up the pace. Leveling the playing field for women innovators would be good for them, good for employers and good for productivity.

In our new policy note, we outline some suggestions for countries:

  • Make research grants conditional on recipient organizations instituting policies that work to level the playing field for women, or reward the institution of these policies, including through bonus payments.
  • Create a women’s top-up venture fund, providing additional finance for women-led firms attracting private venture capital.
  • Build upon and expand global networks convening women working in technology to encourage mentorship and information sharing.
  • Increase scholarship opportunities for women seeking to conduct research and contribute to developing technology.
  • Prioritize sectors with a particularly severe gender imbalance (e.g., automotive, energy).
  • Use the model of the Open Government Partnership to convene country leaders to make commitments towards greater gender equality in technology.

But beyond public policy, this is also a challenge for firms. They aren’t merely victims of their country and sector of activity. Take Apple, with only 25 percent of patent applications involving a woman inventor—it is based in the same country and sector as IBM, Intel, and Microsoft, and yet those firms have a 35 percent or better share. Perhaps the company’s poor performance is linked to its work environment? And improvement can be rapid: 10 of the top 100 innovative firms (BASF, IBM, Intel, Michelin, Qualcomm, Novartis, Henkel, and Hoffman LaRoche) increased their share of patents with at least one women inventor by more than 20 percentage points in a 16-year period. These 100 firms are some of the most creative businesses on the planet—surely they are up to the challenge of ensuring they aren’t unnecessarily leaving—or pushing—talent outside the doors.



CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.