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Gender Differences in Patenting in the Academic Life Sciences

Male academic scientists in the life sciences secure patents at more than twice the rate of their female colleagues, according to an analysis sponsored by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

According to Gender Differences in Patenting in the Academic Life Sciences, published in the August 3, 2006 issue of Science magazine, female academic scientists patent at about 40 percent the rate of men.

The study, which examined a random sample of 4,227 life scientists over a 30-year period, as well as personal interviews with faculty scientists, revealed that 5.65% of the women in the sample held patents compared to 13% for men. Moreover, the male patent holders in the data amassed a total of 1,286 patents, compared to only 92 patents secured by women scientists.

An analysis of related data concluded that there is no evidence that women do less significant scientific research based on standards of scientific impact. Rather, the most significant contributors to the large gender gap were the lack of exposure and social networks by senior women scientists to the commercial sector, as compared to their male colleagues and, concern among women scientists that pursuing commercial opportunities might hinder their university careers.

According to the researchers, because scientists receive compensation when their patents are licensed from their university employers, the findings of the gender differences have implications for income levels. These differences may be amplified because patenting is often a precursor to faculty involvement in other compensated work with companies, such as appointments to scientific advisory boards (SAB) and consulting. In fact, in a related study the researchers found that of 771 SAB members in a large sample of young biomedical companies, only 6.5% were women.

On a positive note, however, the report reveals that younger women scientists, similar to those of their male colleagues, view patents as accomplishments and as a legitimate means to disseminate research, which may result in a narrowing of the patenting gender gap over time.