People

Fewer people are winning patents, and most of them are still men

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has new figures on the gender diversity of people winning patents. The numbers don't look good.

Fewer people are winning patents, and most of them are still men

Yet another extremely important invention from some man.

Photo: David Zaitz/Getty Images

If you hold a patent in the U.S., chances are you're a man.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office released Tuesday its most recent "Progress and Potential" report, which dives into the gender makeup of the people who have been awarded patents by the office over the years. Listed as a "major finding" in the report is the fact that the number of patents awarded with at least one woman inventor listed increased from 20.7% in 2016 to 21.9% in 2019. That's an increase of just 1.2 percentage points.

While patents can be awarded for innovations in just about any field, many of the top patent winners are tech companies. IBM alone has received more than 140,000 patents over the years and has been the single largest winner of patents in the U.S. each year for nearly 30 years. And according to the USPTO's report, roughly 41% of the women who win patents in the U.S. are located in four major tech-hub states: California, Massachusetts, New York and Texas.

So perhaps it's unsurprising that so few women are patent holders in the U.S., given how male-dominated the tech industry is. About 43% of Amazon employees identify as women; 37% at Facebook; 33% at Apple; 32.5% at Google; and just 29% at Microsoft. And those numbers tend to drop when you only look at technical roles within these companies — only about 26% of computing roles in the U.S. are filled by women.

But the good news is that these numbers are at least rising and not falling. While still a relatively small cadre, the percentage of women inventors has grown: It stood at less than 5% in 1980, whereas women accounted for more than 17% of the inventors on U.S. patents in 2019. The percentage of women on patents is also up in 45 states when comparing 2007 to 2016 and 2007 to 2019, the USPTO report said. (Only Hawaii, Alaska, Alabama, Mississippi and North Dakota saw a contraction during that time.)

And many tech firms on the list of companies with the most awarded patents by the USPTO also increased the rate at which they had women listed as inventors on patents. IBM, Xerox, Oracle, Microsoft, Alphabet, Intel, Amazon, Adobe, Apple, Cisco and Honeywell all saw a jump in the percentage of women on patents over the last four years. That being said, the biggest jump was from 3M, which saw only 1.35 percentage-point increase over that time.

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