Why Are There so Few Women Inventors?

Mothers of Invention

In previous blog postings, I’ve mentioned Dr Shlomit Yanisky-Ravid’s book “Intellectual Property at the Workplace: Theoretical and Comparative Perspectives”. However, I have not published a review on this blog yet, since I have had a peer-reviewed review accepted by the Oxford Journal of Intellectual Property Law and Practice. Once this publishes, I will link to it and make some additional comments.

There is, however, one chapter in the book that deals with women inventors, or rather the lack of them. the chapter is weakly connected to the rest of the book since the author suggests that the fact that most inventions are filed by companies exasperates the problem. However, the empirical evidence that she brings actually indicates that there are almost twice as many named women inventors of company inventions than there are of privately filed inventions. In other words, the evidence goes against the hypothesis. The chapter on women inventors is structurally different from the rest of the book in that it includes graphs and statistics. As it is really a different subject from the book as a whole, I am blogging some comments now.

The book as a whole, and the chapter on women inventors, like so many other pieces of scholarship, reflects the author’s personality and values. Dr Yanisky-Ravid is a passionate advocate of worker’s rights and also of women’s rights. The extensive footnotes use the plural of the verb to see ראו, since the singular form ראה is masculine, and we can’t have that can we? She uses the double-barreled name favoured by women lawyers, where her family named is added to that of the husbands or her man as she calls him, using the term אישי – Ishi or ‘my man’ in the dedication, rather than the historically correct term בעלי – ba’ali which means ‘my husband’, but has connotations of ownership since it is linked to the word בעלים (ba’alim) meaning owners, and בעלות (ba’alut) meaning ownership. In this, the author is actually preempted by Hosea.

The author posits that, as with other types of property law, inherent biases cause an inequitable division of resources that further entrenches inequalities. She notes that over the five-year period from 2000 to 2005, only 1.9% of patentees receiving Israel patents were women, 30% were men and the rest were companies. With regard to employee inventions, 13% of named inventors were women and 87% were men. This is understood as showing that women more often invent as part of teams, but are rarely at the narrow apex of the pyramid. The author cheerfully notes that her analysis does not directly prove the source of the discrimination. Nevertheless, a feminist approach to IP rights is presented, the book purporting to address the legal and other structures that exclude women from owning IP rights.

The author considers that property rights per se have been under-analyzed from a gender perspective and that the traditional patriarchal society has defined property in a way that favours men. The situation in IP in general and patents in particular is seen as an extreme example of this built-in discrimination. Citing McKinnon, Gilligan and Fisk, the author reaches the radical conclusion that the fact that women are not often named as inventors is proof that the legal system, the definition of patentable subject matter and the concept of ownership inherent in the concept of intellectual property as property all discriminate against women. The biases in patent law that result in this discrimination are not apparent, but they would not be expected to be discernible since they are so deeply entrenched. Bias is not, however, purely a masculine aspect of IP law. Other sectors of society are under-represented amongst inventors and owners of intellectual property and these similarly show that the system is biased. Affirmative action is proposed. Specifically, there should be a minimum quota of female examiners in the Israel Patent Office and in government entities. Forcing commercial companies to employ women in R&D is also suggested, but not stressed. She toys with the idea of widening the definition of inventor to include research assistants, lab workers and junior staff.

In the years studied by the author, there were, according to her research, actually more female examiners than males. This makes the minimal quota idea a little odd. there is also no explanation on how a minimal number of women examiners would increase the number of women inventors. The hypothesis is based on the assumption that there is some bias by examiners. Personally, I don’t think that examiners of either sex pay much attention to the gender of the inventor. This is something that could be tested though. It is certainly possible to compare the relative proportion of patents examined and patents allowed where the inventor is male or female and the examiner is male or female. Dr Yanisky-Ravid doesn’t bother. She simply makes wild, unsubstantiated hypotheses and suggests ways to improve the situation. As an empiricist, I find the approach disturbing.

In the English overview we find a paragraph opening with the sentence: An important principle that arises from the consideration of the different theories focuses on the stage during which an employee transfers rights to her employer.

Why, where according to her own statistics, very few inventors are women, does she relate to her employer?

Dr Yanisky Ravid’s position is that the evidence that women are not often named inventors of patents proves that the patent system discriminates against women. I don’t see a gender bias in the Israel Patent Law 1967, as a document and to be fair, neither does Dr Yanisky-Ravid. She deduces the subtle and insidious bias from the fact that women are not inventors and the net result of men inventing does not fairly redistribute wealth between the sexes. It is, however, certainly true that women are certainly under-represented as inventors. In 15 years of very broad practice, drafting thousands of patent applications, I’ve met five women inventors, and three of those were in clothing related fields (including the inventor of seamless knickers, which is a patent I wrote for Delta and had allowed without office actions. Arguably it is one of  the better inventions I’ve worked on). Can the lack of women inventors be fairly attributed to discrimination? I am not convinced.

I have no doubt that in the past women have been discriminated against in some respects, and this discrimination included the moral right seen as part of copyright in the continental system. However, as far as copyright is concerned, the world has come a long way since Mary Ann Evans adopted the name George Elliot and Anne Brontë wrote under the pseudonym Acton Bell. A strong case can be made that Rosalind Franklin, Lise Meitner and particularly Jocelyn Bell Burnell should have received Nobel Prizes together with or instead of their male associates.

There are some market forces that discriminate against women but I am less certain than Dr Shlomit Yanisky-Ravid that the paucity of women named as inventors on patents is mostly the result of their contributions being unnoticed, of fewer women studying science, or of women being less likely to be able to burn the midnight oil and more likely to accept 9:00 to 5:00 jobs, and to seek part-time work to bring up children and to cook and clean for their significant others.

I think my aunt who was brought up in an egalitarian and very left-wing secular Kibbutz was closer to the truth when she once told me that she thinks that, left to women, we’d still be living in caves — albeit, nicely furnished ones with well swept floors. Men are, by nature, conquerors who are programmed to improve their lot, and women are naturally home-makers who are programmed to make the best of what they have. This programming is, I believe, nature, not nurture.

I don’t accept that the IP field discriminates merely because there are fewer women inventors than men. This is not an argument that my scientific and legal training, or my British and Jewish education, considers intellectually robust. This apparently won’t bother Yanisky-Ravid since she no doubt considers these as symptomatic of the pro-masculine bias of my education. I am missing her point. We are on different wavelengths.

I am reminded of the scene in Life of Brian where the members of “The People’s Front of Judea” are sitting in the amphitheatre.

Stan: I want to have babies.

Reg: You want to have babies?!?!

Stan: It’s every man’s right to have babies if he wants them.

Reg: But … you can’t HAVE babies!

Stan: Don’t you oppress me!

Reg: I’m not oppressing you, Stan. You haven’t got a womb! Where’s the foetus gonna gestate? You gonna keep it in a box?

At an event in Bar Ilan University a few years back, Dr Yanitzky-Ravid suggested that the patent field should be widened to non-technical inventions to be fairer to women who were generally less technical. In her latest book, that particularly idea is not discussed. It seems that she has thouht better of it.

I started my comments by noting that the author is unhappy with using the word בעל (Baal, as in the male Canaanite god, baal z’vuv literally Lord of the Flies or Belzebub) for her significant other of the male gender since the term implies ownership – think of connection between husband and husbandry. I realize now that I’ve misunderstood: what Yanisky-Ravid objects to is the use of the term baalut – בעלות meaning ownership, since it implies masculinity.

2 Responses to Why Are There so Few Women Inventors?

  1. Benny says:

    Michael,
    allow me to add my twopenny worth. To take my own company as a typical example, we have no named female inventors on our patents because we have no female engineers in R&D – this because we had no female applicants for the jobs, this because there are far fewer graduating female engineers than men, this because their parents never encouraged them to take up engineering as a career choice. Haven’t noticed a general shortage of female lawyers, though. I, too, do not refer to my significant other as “wife”, which in the local language does suggest ownership, but as my partner, which is truer to fact. (well, “overlord” would be slightly more accurate). The late great satirist Alex Berlyne used to call his partner “my room-mate”.Incidentally, the practice of appending the husbands’ surname after marriage is exponential. Her grandchildren will have names which are not so much “double barreled” as resembling a Katyusha multiple launcher.

    • Benny,

      My wife has a masters in mechanical engineering from the Technion. She had a twenty year career working for high tech companies, including AVX, Shellcase, M Systems, Sandisk, Anobit and Apple. She has similar views to me re women inventors. She also has strong things to say regarding the choice of women to light torches on Yom HaAtzmaut which she saw as totally patronizing. I hope we get some more comments on this topic. It woudl be nice to see a wider debate.

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