Statistics on women inventors: A worldwide view

by Dr Farag Moussa
Honorary President of the International Federation of Inventors' Associations (IFIA)

(Study published by the author in his book  Women Inventors Organizations,
Geneva, IFIA Publications, 1994)

Are women inventors really a rare species? Take a look at these dismal figures based on patent data published in the early 1980s:

0.5%   Norway
1 %     Canada, Finland, Sweden 
1.2 %  France
1.7 %  USA 

From the moment I tackled this subject, I felt these studies were superficial and the figures wrong. There are women inventors who are invisible in patent statistics. Here are some reasons:

Automatically, an inventor will be considered a man when a patent bears only the family name; an initial for the first name ; or a first name that could be either masculine or feminine, such as Pat, Robin, Jacky, Chris, Toni, Jo, Alex in English, or Dominique, Claude and Camille in French.
In some countries (i.e., France) the inventor's name, whether male or female, is not always mentioned. How can anybody undertake a serious study using such poor data?
In the case of inventions undertaken by a team, statisticians may consider the team leader's name only. It is first on the list and most of the time belongs to a man. Thus, many women co-inventors remain invisible.

To all these reasons some people add the old complaint : that men deprive women of the fruits of their own minds. They say, "Think of all those women whose inventions were hidden under the name of a father, husband, brother, son, or any other male in the family!".  This was true in the past, and probably still is in some cases, but nowadays you could find just as easily a male inventor hiding behind a woman's name: wife, sister, daughter. The reasons for this vary from the mainly financial - inheritance, taxes - to legal: a man working for a firm or company, and therefore not allowed by his employer to apply for a patent. Of course, the employee inventor can also be a woman, which makes things even more complicated. So please be careful with statistics.

If all statistical failings, errors and omissions in general, and of patent statistics in particular, were taken into consideration, the percentage of women inventors would be definitely higher and more encouraging to women.

While doing research for my first book on women inventors, I undertook a detailed study in my own country, Egypt, in 1985. The patent system was established there in 1951. In Egypt the name of the inventor is always mentioned on the patent, and the gender of Egyptian names is quite clearly masculine or feminine. I based my study on the statistics published on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the Egyptian patent system, statistics from 1951 to 1981.  To begin with, I went through the inventors' names and reached the conclusion that in this underdeveloped country, the percentage of women inventors was at least as high as 6 %!  From a total of 514 Egyptian inventors, there were no fewer than 29 women.  I then examined the list of inventions patented during the same period.  From a total of 609 inventions, women had invented, or participated in, 37 of them.

Some years later, when collecting material for a book on women inventors to be published in Finnish, I asked the Patent Office of Finland to draw up a list of patents granted to Finnish women inventors over the previous five years, 1984 to 1988, regardless of whether their names appeared as sole inventors or co-inventors. I noted that:

Between 1984 and 1988, 77 women had developed, or participated in the development of 80 inventions. This was quite a blow to those who pretended that only a handful of women inventors existed in Finland!
40 of the above inventions, that is 50% of the inventions patented by women, were developed in firms and companies. As for the remaining 50% they were the result of the work of independent women inventors. The majority had patented one invention only. Quite a number had gone on to form their own company.
During 1988, the last year under study, 24 patented inventions were developed, solely or in part, by Finnish women representing 3.1% of the total 778 patents granted to Finnish residents. That figure is three times the estimated 1% put forward at the time.

In 1990, the U.S. Patent Office published Buttons to Biotech, a detailed report of the number of women inventors based on patent data for the period 1977 to 1988. Although the U.S. Patent Office admitted in its study that, "inventors having given names… which could not be easily characterized as male or female, were assumed to be male…" (sic) and that "… the results presented must be regarded as approximations", the survey offers some encouraging figures nevertheless.

In 1988, the percentage of patents for inventions granted to women resident in the USA had reached 5.16%. It was larger when it came to plant patents: 6.92%, or industrial designs: 9.49%.

At the time, the greatest number of U.S. women inventors were found in the field of chemistry: 9.87% in 1988. This figure had increased three and a half times during the 12-year period under review (2.8% in 1977). The study also noted that women inventors participation in chemical technology is particularly evident in biotechnology and pharmaceutical areas.

No figures are given in the U.S. 1990 official report on computer software simply because software was then nonpatentable. Yet it is known that women are very creative in this field. The most famous among them all is American Grace Hopper, inventor of the first completed compiler (1952), a sensational breakthrough that opened the door for automatic programming and indirectly for PCs today. Until then computer programmers had to write time-consuming instructions for each new software package, and computers were huge. Things changed radically with the invention of the compiler, a computer program that translates a programming language so that it can be understood by computers.

Another important point is that most scientists - be they men or women, and there are more and more women in science - still do not patent their inventions. They prefer to present the results of their investigations and research orally in seminars or symposiums and/or to publish them in scientific journals.

As we have seen, patents tell only half the story of women inventors. Unveiling the other half is essential if exact figures concerning the percentage of women inventors in a given country are to be established. One thing is certain : if it were possible to add the number of nonpatented inventions to the number of patented inventions, we would discover that the percentage of women inventors in our modern world is higher than the figures given by the most meticulous patent statistical surveys. This percentage is increasing constantly.