Haas Newsroom

Female Life Scientists in Academia File Fewer Patents

Aug. 3, 2006

Media Contacts:
Ute S. Frey
UC Berkeley Haas School of Business

Ronna Kelly
UC Berkeley Haas School of Business

Women life scientists in higher education patent their work at a rate of 40% of their male peers, according to a recently published article co-authored by University of California, Berkeley Haas School of Business Assistant Professor Waverly Ding.

Although the gender gap in the academic life sciences has narrowed, the gap in female faculty’s commercialization of scientific research – as measured by patenting activity – remains wide, according to the new research by Ding and co-authors Fiona Murray of the MIT Sloan School of Management and Toby E. Stuart of Harvard Business School. Their findings will be published in the Aug. 4 issue of Science magazine.

“There are many studies that investigate the gender gap in other areas of attainment such as productivity, promotions and representation in elite universities,” Ding says. “But there was little being said about the gender gap in commercialization of a faculty member’s discoveries.”

Ding, Murray, and Stuart decided to investigate gender differences in one specific commercial activity – patenting – because patenting is becoming more important in life sciences, and some other areas of engineering. Patented research is more likely to be licensed by companies and the licensing agreements can generate substantial royalties for a faculty member, Ding notes.

In a random sample of 4,227 life scientists over a 30-year period, Ding and her co-authors found that 5.65% of the 903 women in the group (51 female patenters) produced only 92 patents. By contrast, 13% of the 3,324 male scientists in the sample (431 male patenters) amassed a total of 1,286 patents – nearly 14 times as many as their female colleagues.

Even after accounting for the substantial effects of productivity, networks, scientific field, and employer attributes, there was still a large, statistically significant effect of being female – with women life scientists patenting at only 40% of the rate of equivalent male scientists, Ding, Murray, and Stuart found.

The authors found that male patenters typically have the highest paper counts; the most National Institutes of Health grant money; and along with women patenters, the most co-authorships with industry scientists. Not surprisingly, scientists who work at universities that have institutionalized support for patenting file for patents at a greater rate.

Using the quantitative evidence, the authors were able to rule out one possible cause of the patenting gender gap: that women are risk averse in their research choices and consequently produce less “patentable” research. Rather, they found that articles published by women faculty are cited just as frequently as men faculty – evidence that their work has as much scholarly impact and is equally important.

Through interviews with faculty, the authors identified two other explanations for the large gender difference in patenting: women faculty’s lack of exposure to the commercial sector and concern that pursuing commercial opportunities might hinder their university careers.

“Most (but not all) women had few contacts in industry,” the authors found. Without those connections, they found it time-consuming to gauge whether an idea was commercially relevant. By contrast, men often described an industry contact as a precursor to patenting.

Women interviewed also were more likely to describe the challenges associated with balancing research, teaching, and commercialization. “Unlike their male counterparts, who described their patenting decisions as unproblematic and driven by translational interests, female faculty expressed concern about the potentially negative impact that patenting might have on education, collegiality, and research quality,” the authors wrote.

On the bright side, the authors uncovered some encouraging signs that the gender gap is narrowing for younger women faculty. While their interviews found few senior faculty made the transition to patenting, female and male junior faculty held similar attitudes toward patenting, their interviews found.

Ten years after getting their PhDs, the youngest group of female faculty studied (those earning their PhDs from 1986 to 1995) had a similar average patenting rate to their male colleagues. By contrast, male faculty who earned their degrees between 1967 and 1975 had an average patenting rate 4.4 times that of female counterparts 10 years after getting their degrees.

Ding cites two reasons for this generational difference. First, younger female faculty are more likely to have colleagues who are supportive of patenting and other commercialization efforts. Second, institutional support also is improving, with technology transfer offices created at many universities by the mid-1980s.

“Young female faculty are similar to their male colleagues: They view patents as accomplishments and as a legitimate means to disseminate research,” the authors conclude. “If this trend continues, we may observe further declines in the magnitude of the gender gap in commercializing academic research.”

In another unpublished paper, however, Ding exposes that the gender gap extends to the participation of women faculty on scientific advisory boards of biotechnology companies, which is even one step closer to the world of commerce than patenting. Her research focuses on academic entrepreneurship, technology strategy, and innovations.