Women fail to tap patents vein

August 25, 2006

The lack of an old girls' network hinders chances of success, says Jon Marcus

Researchers at Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Berkeley have found that women in the sciences are awarded fewer than half the number of lucrative patents of male colleagues with equal experience, even though they carry out work that is equally significant.

They say that women are held back largely by the lack of an "old girls' network" equivalent to the male-dominated system of connections that benefits men and they therefore lose out on the royalty income, consulting contracts and board appointments that come with patents.

Women, in particular those who received their doctoral degrees before 1986, are also more likely to feel that pursuing commercial opportunities could hold back their academic careers. This trend is less pronounced among women who earned their doctorates after 1986, who are more likely to pursue or be awarded patents.

Toby Stuart of the Harvard Business School, and one of the study's authors, said: "Among the most senior faculty, a larger gender gap persists, reinforced by women's limited commercial networks and traditional views of academic careers."

"For younger women, patenting is more widely embraced, although a gender gap remains," he said.

Dr Stuart undertook the project after noticing - in another analysis - that only 6.5 per cent of 771 scientific advisory board members in a sample of biomedical companies were women.

The resulting study of 3,324 male and 903 female university researchers with at least five years' post-PhD experience in their fields found that women had earned patents at only 40 per cent the rate of men. Thirteen per cent of the men had their names on a total of 1,286 patents, versus only 5.6 per cent of the women, who had just 92 in all. The results were the same in almost every field.

Patents are often the route to lucrative licensing royalties, well-paid board appointments and other perks. US universities report a combined $1.4 billion (£745 million) in patent-licensing income and more than 3,600 new patents a year, according to the Association of University Technology Managers.

Dr Stuart and his colleagues also interviewed male and female scientists and found that women had fewer industry connections than men.

Given this and other factors, few of the older women bothered to apply for patents, the study found, although Dr Stuart said that this was changing.

Younger female faculty members were comparatively "undaunted by the challenges of combining academic and commercial science", he added.

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