Salute the achievements of the world's great female inventors and ensure there are more of them in future

Salute the achievements of the world's great female inventors and ensure there are more of them in future

World IP Day is a couple of weeks away.  The theme this year is “Powering change: Women in innovation and creativity”.  In celebration of this theme, this month’s guest blog from Clarivate Analytics - which has been put together by the firm’s Director of External Communications, Laura Wheeler - takes a look at the contribution of female inventors to innovation and creativity by reviewing some notable inventions from the past. In addition, it examines the proportion of female inventors, how this has changed over time and gives some possible reasons for the story behind the figures.

They say that necessity is the mother of invention and certainly some of the things we take for granted today were invented by notable mothers of invention.  During a visit to New York in 1902, Mary Anderson noticed the driver of a trolley car struggling to keep the windshield clear of sleet, so she designed the first effective “Window-cleaning device” (patented as US743801) which became the forerunner for today’s car windscreen wipers (eg, US8555457, which cites Anderson’s patent).

We have Margaret Knight to thank for today’s familiar flat-bottomed paper bag with her “Improvement in paper bag machines” patented in 1871 (US116842). Knight has been called “the most famous 19th century woman inventor” and went on to secure 86 further patents in areas as diverse as shoe-making, unhardened sheet winding machinery and the rotary engine.

Another prolific female inventor from the past was Beulah Louise Henry (also known as ‘Lady Edison’) who held over 49 patents, some of which, whilst not perhaps ‘essential’, include useful and entertaining items like the vacuum ice-cream freezer (US1037762A) and the inflatable doll (US2503948A).

Perhaps the most significant example of female innovation from this era originates, somewhat surprisingly, from Hollywood. The movie star Hedy Lamarr was born in Austria in 1914. Her stellar (and occasionally scandalous) screen career and colourful personal life are well documented. What is less well known is that in 1942, under her real name of Hedy Kiesler Markey, she co-patented an invention to prevent signal jamming of radio-controlled torpedoes (US2292387A).

Lamarr worked with a musician friend called George Anthiel to develop a method of controlled ‘frequency hopping’ radio signals which could not be tracked or jammed. To control the changes in the signal, she and Anthiel adapted the recording roll mechanism from a miniaturised ‘player-piano’ (pianola) to provide “a pair of synchronous records, one at the transmitting station and one at the receiving station which change the tuning of the transmitting and receiving apparatus from time to time so that an enemy would be unable to determine at what frequency a controlling impulse would be sent”.

‘Frequency hopping’ turned out to be the early ancestor of ‘spread spectrum’ radio technology, without which GPS, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi could not have been developed. Lamarr’s patent is cited by 171 later inventions; for example, US8542643B2, published in 2013, for “Selecting communications channels based on performance eg in Wireless Personal Area Network Bluetooth system”.

More recently, female inventions in advanced materials have seen the development of Kevlar, a para-aramid synthetic fibre which has a high tensile strength-to-weight ratio and can be used in several applications including skis, bows, mechanical belts, industrial hoses and as protective clothing (Stephanie Kwolek, US3888965A, US3951914A and others).

Another prominent area of female innovation is in the field of genetics.  Several woman have made remarkable discoveries and developed notable inventions

  • Dr Flossie Wong-Staal was the first scientist to clone HIV and determine the function of its genes. Genetic mapping of the virus made it possible to develop HIV tests. Relevant patents include EP173529A1, WO1994026877A1, WO1996036705A1, US5670361A and US5811275A which detail methods for diagnosis and treatment of the virus.

  • Ann Tsukamoto is the co-patentee of a process to isolate the human stem cell - EP451611A2 (Human hematopoietic stem cell). Stem cells are located in bone marrow and serve as the foundation for the growth of red and white blood cells. The ability to isolate these cells may serve in the understanding and treatment of lymphomas, leukemias and other neoplastic conditions, eg, breast cancer, and for use in bone marrow transplants and gene therapy.

  • Elizabeth H Blackburn is a leading researcher in telomeres which work as “caps” to help to protect DNA within the chromosomes during cell division. In the late 70s and early 80s, Blackburn made a number of discoveries relating to telomeres, including the repeat sequence of telomeres (TTAGGG), proving that they prevent chromosomes from being broken down and also finding the enzyme telomerase, which maintains the telomere sequence. For this work, Blackburn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2009 with her co-workers Carol W Greider and Jack W Szostak.

  • Michelle L Hastings is a researcher in the field of antisense oligonucleotides and has conducted research into the use of antisense oligonucleotides for the treatment of cystic fibrosis and Usher’s Syndrome. Hastings holds two patents in this field (US20120165389A1 “Treating Usher's syndrome”, and US20160244767A1 “New antisense compound used to treat cystic fibrosis in an animal”).

These examples show ground breaking and Nobel-worthy innovation and creativity. But looking at the proportion of female to male inventors named in US patents, it turns out that the contribution of women in innovation is definitely a case of quality rather than quantity. 

Research conducted by Clarivate Analytics shows that, for a sample week in 2017, just 11.1% of published US patent applications arose from female inventors:

Inventor gender for US apps published 2 March 2017

However small that proportion, it is at least growing. For the same sample week 10 years previously, the proportion of published US patent applications with a named female inventor was just 6.6%.  Although the numbers are small, that’s at least a healthy 68% growth over the 10 year period.

Of course, innovation is a global enterprise these days, so looking at the geographic breakdown of origin of inventors, there are some interesting regional differences both for 2017 and 10 years earlier in 2007:

All regions have seen growth in female representation, but it is most marked for inventions originating from Asia Pacific and Rest of World (RoW).  During the same time it should be noted that the proportion of US patent applications arising from Asia Pacific and RoW (ie, with Asia Pacific or RoW priority) has remained roughly the same at around 29%.

Evidence indicates that more women are entering the science arena; and, while this is encouraging, the real challenges begin as they attempt to move up the career ladder. For women working in technology, however, the situation is rather less encouraging – there are too few women entering the field in the first place.

A 2014 Gartner report on: “A Perspective on the Priorities of Women and Men” showed that the percentage of women CIOs in technology has remained largely the same since 2004. According to research from PWC's 2017 report titled "Women in Tech: Time to close the gender gap” only 5% of leadership positions in the technology sector are held by women. The 2017 “The Global Gender Gap Index” report introduced by the World Economic Forum states that women are strongly under-represented in Engineering, Manufacturing and Construction and Information, Communication and Technology.

Does this problem stem from the challenges of recruiting girls earlier on? Or are there also issues with promotion bias, or a lack of female role models? According to further research highlighted in PWC's report, 78% of students can’t name a famous female working in technology. So perhaps the issues do start early on.

These disappointing statistics need to change. But the only way we will see real change is with action. Results such as these show that more women in tech roles need to be celebrated and showcased, especially to the younger generations. The theme for this year’s World IP Day is therefore highly relevant and deserves our full support.  Hopefully this can then encourage an increase in the pipeline of women entering into tech roles so we can move towards equilibrium.

IAM and Clarivate Analytics, the world-leading provider of patent information, have partnered to provide IAM's readers with exclusive insight and analysis of globally important IP business issues.


Unlock unlimited access to all IAM content