The European Patent Office (EPO) has recently released the outcomes of its new study named “Women’s participation in inventive activity”, which aims at better understanding the presence of women inventors across different countries, time periods, technology fields and applicant types.

The study is set against a background of growing interest shown by the EPO in discussing the measures to overcome inventor gender gap and enhance women’s contribution to innovation. Recent research has in fact shown that a higher participation of women in inventive activities would benefit society in so far as much more inventive activity would be conducted in general (Bell et al., 2019) and research would focus on solving needs and problems that male inventors tackle too little (for example, women-specific health problems), resulting in greater breath and inclusivity of technology (Nielsen et al., 2017; Koning et al., 2021). These issues have also been the subject of the series of virtual roundtables “Women and IP innovation” hosted by EPO in November 2022.

The study focuses on women’s participation in patenting activity at the EPO, by examining all European patent applications filed between 1978 and 2019 (with occasional extensions until 2021), from the 38 European Patent Convention Contracting States. It finds that even if the share of women inventors has increased steadily over time, only 13.2% of inventors in Europe are women.

Due to the wealth of information available in patents, the latter represent a precise indicator of the output of inventive activities and allow to analyse individual inventive activity on the basis of various parameters (e.g. industries, geographies and technology fields).

More in detail, the study methodology consists, first, in attributing gender based on the inventors’ names and indicating the country according to the inventor’s address data in the EPO patent statistics database (PATSTAT). The patenting activity of women across regions and over time is then evaluated through the metric of women inventor rate (WIR), which measures the percentage of women inventors among all inventors in patent applications in a given year.

The WIR in EPO countries (13.2%) appears to be significantly lower than in the P.R. China (26.8%) and the R. Korea (28.3%), slightly lower than in the United States (15% in 2019), but higher than in Japan (9.5%).

Within the EPO countries, the highest WIR levels are recorded in Latvia (30.6%), Portugal (26.8%), Croatia (25.8%), Spain (23.2%) and Lithuania (21.4%), while the lowest ones are recorded in Austria (8.0%), Germany (10.0%) and the Netherlands (11.9%.). Italy (14.3%) ranks just above average, after France (16.6%), Belgium (15.8%) and Cyprus (15.1%), whereas Turkey is the country that shows the most significant rise in its WIR, climbing from 16th position in the 1990s to 6th in the 2010s (17.7%).

Differences across EPO countries may be linked to the countries’ technology specialisations and the contribution of their universities and public research organisations (PROs) to patenting activity. In fact, WIR variations by applicant type show that universities and PROs (including hospitals, non-profit organisations and governmental agencies) host the largest proportion of women inventors (19.4%), which is twice the WIR for companies (10.0%) and individual inventors (9.3%). It also shows that the WIR among university inventors is systematically higher than among companies or individual inventors, irrespective of the chosen technological field.

Looking at the variations of WIR by technological sector, chemistry stands out as the one with the highest WIR by far (around 22%), four times higher than the value in Mechanical engineering (5.2%). Chemistry also shows the most remarkable growth over time, jumping from a WIR of 11.9% in the 1090s to a WIR of 22.4% in the 2010s. Within the Chemistry sector, Biotechnology and Pharmaceuticals have the highest WIR (30.7% and 30.2%, respectively), followed by Food chemistry (28.1%) and Organic fine chemistry (25.8%).

In addition to the WIR, the study also mentions other metrics that can be used to evaluate women’s patenting activity, namely the women’s share of patents, which attributes each patent fractionally to each inventor appearing on it and aggregates all women’s shares across patents, and the share of patent applications including at least one woman inventor. Both these metrics show an increase of women’s patenting activity in EPO countries, but while the women’s share of patents have increased consistently from around 2% in the late 1970s to over 13% in 2019 (following a similar but slightly lower path compared to the WIR), the share of inventor teams including at least one woman is systematically higher and increasing faster than the WIR. This data interestingly implies that the presence of women in patenting increases with the importance of teamwork and confirms women’s over-representation particularly in teamwork-intensive technology fields, such as pharmaceuticals and biotechnology (where patents are more likely than those in other fields to result from teamwork and especially from large teams of inventors), as well as in inventor teams on university patents, which are larger than those on company patents.

The study also compares the WIR to indicators of women’s participation in other types of related economic and scientific activities, such as the women’s shares in total employment, PhD enrolment, PhD graduates in STEM, R&D personnel, researchers and managers, for the nine largest EPO countries in terms of patenting at the EPO (i.e. Germany, Spain, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, United Kingdom, Belgium and Denmark). This comparison shows that in all nine countries the share of women among inventors in European patent applications is significantly lower than in any of the other activities. Although the share of women among R&D personnel, researchers and managers is low, it is still a multiple of the WIR in the countries concerned: for example, in Italy women account for 26% of R&D staff and researchers, which is almost double the WIR. The difference is even more pronounced when considering the share of women in total employment and in PhD enrolment (which is above 40%) or that in PhD graduates in STEM (which is above 30%, with the only exception being The Netherlands).

Lastly, the report analyses the degree of inventors’ internationalisation, which is a relevant aspect since international mobility of inventors contributes distinctively to knowledge circulation worldwide. By estimating the migration status of inventors using name and surname analysis, it shows that, in many EPO countries (including Austria, the Netherlands, Germany, Norway, Denmark, United Kingdom, Finland, Greece, France, Italy), WIR values are higher for migrant women inventors than for native ones.

In raising awareness on the issue of inventor gender gap, the study devotes some pages to female figures whose recent inventions have completely changed our lives, and namely:

  • Katalin Kariko, who played a key role in developing mRNA vaccine technology recently used to fight the COVID-19 pandemic;
  • Elena García Armada, who developed an adaptable battery-powered exoskeleton, allowing children with disabilities to walk during rehabilitation sessions, and won the 2022 European Inventor Award in the “Popular Prize” category;
  • Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, who developed method for growing new tissue outside the body using a patient‘s own cells, thus opening new horizons in regenerative medicine, and won the 2021 European Inventor Award in the “Popular Prize” category;
  • Madiha Derouazi and Elodie Belnoue, who developed a platform to produce therapeutic anti-cancer vaccines and won the 2022 European Inventor Award in the “Small and medium-sized enterprises” category;
  • Carla Gomes, who – with her colleague Nuno Correia – led the development of a mooring platform for floating solar farms which tracks the sun, rotating each solar panel to optimise efficiency.

In conclusion, although women’s contribution to patenting has been growing in the last decades, a considerable gender gap remains among inventors. In the words of the President of the EPO, Antonio Campinos, “increasing women’s participation in science thus remains a major challenge for Europe, as well as a key factor for its future sustainability and competitiveness” since the low participation of women in inventive activities also translates into reduced breadth and inclusivity of new technologies and may be affecting society leaving many human needs may remain unfulfilled.