More bias against women: ‘Female-sounding’ patent applicants are less likely to be successful

Inventors with feminised names are less likely to be granted patents in Australia, according to new research.

The study, published in UNSW Law Journal, finds that patent applications filed with IP Australia are more likely to be approved if the inventors have male-sounding first names.

“A patent is an intellectual property right and an economic tool. Ultimately the government is giving you a monopoly for 20 years so no one else can copy your invention,” says lead author Dr Vicki Huang, a senior lecturer at Deakin University’s law school.

“This means you can set the price and you can licence your discovery. It’s one of the most valuable ways you can monetise a new and inventive scientific idea.”

To investigate the effect of gender on patent applications, the researchers examined 309,544 standard patent applications filed with IP Australia between 2001 and 2015.

Roughly 10% of these applications came from Australian residents, with the rest coming from overseas.

IP Australia doesn’t record gender of patent applicants, so the researchers had to use first names as a proxy.

Read more: The persistent gender gap in science

They compared the names on the patents with the US’ Social Security Administration’s database of 90,000 first names and their associated gender distribution – for instance, 99.6% of Rogers in the US are assigned male at birth. (Australia doesn’t have a similar dataset.)

“For those names that had less than 90% probability of being one or the other gender, we called them ambiguous,” says Huang.

Nearly 70% of the inventors were assigned male, while 11% were coded female, 4% ambiguous, and 15% not identified – that is, they didn’t appear in the database the researchers were using. These names included uncommon names, foreign-language names and initials.

The researchers found that while overall, 75% of patent applications were successful, inventors with female names had lower odds of getting approved than male inventors.

Read more: The review on women in STEM: a physicist’s perspective

Not identified names also had a higher success rate than female named inventors.

The bias was consistent across all years, and all fields of invention – whether they had larger or smaller proportions of women.

“Women tend to apply in fields that are generally less successful – for example, it’s harder to get a patent in the life sciences for both men and women,” says Huang.

“So we controlled for that. And women still have a harder time than men in those fields.”

The results were also consistent between Australian and non-Australian applicants.

“What we’re trying to do now is unpick where it is that the problem lies. Is it with the examiner or is it more through the pipeline?” says Huang.

Read more: Can patent law keep up with science?

These biases are similar to those found by researchers in the USA.

But Huang thinks there may be underlying cultural differences in the Australian case.

“In the United States, they decided, ‘we think patent examiners are biased’. So one solution is just to make the inventor names blind.

“But we think it’s much bigger than that. We don’t think it’s because examiners are gender biased – they might be, but we don’t think that’s what was missing.

“We think it’s part of the STEM pipeline. Female scientists, even when they’re good enough to apply for a patent, may not have the funding, the mentoring, or the support to push their patents through.”

The researchers are hoping to identify where and how women can be supported in their patent applications – as well as investigating the effect of foreign first names.

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