Lack of female inventors hinders innovation in women’s health

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New research published in Science indicates that the gender imbalance in R&D has implications for women’s health. It marks an important step in showing how inequalities in the labor market can lead to inequalities in product markets.

Why are the diseases of women, the anatomy of women or the needs of women more generally neglected by inventors? New research indicates that a gender imbalance in R&D impacts the beneficiaries of inventions.

By analyzing more than 430,000 US biomedical patents filed between 1976 and 2010, professors Sampsa Samila of IESE Business School, Rembrand Koning of Harvard Business School and John-Paul Ferguson of McGill University find significant evidence that who invents affects what is invented, and they highlight the missed opportunities that this model reveals. Their article “For whom are we inventing?” Patents filed by women focus more on women’s health, but few women can invent ”is published in the journal Science.

Today, only about 13% of US patent inventors are women. Yet this study found marked progress over the years: in 1976, only 6.3% of biomedical patents came from female-led teams, while this figure rose to 16.2% in 2010. It is proved that this 10 percentage point increase resulted in many more innovations affecting women’s health.

There is also some evidence that women, who currently make up around 35% of STEM scientists, do not outnumber the ranks of patent inventors for a number of reasons, including gender biases in the workforce and in decisions about R&D opportunities deemed valid. pursued by managers.

“Indeed, the results show that inequalities in the labor market could lead to inequalities in the product market”, prof. explains Samila. “In other words, discrimination in the labor market is not only a problem for the individuals concerned, but it affects the whole of society due to the lack of contributions from those who have been discriminated against. “

The good news is that lowering barriers for disadvantaged groups should help spur innovation and economic growth. “There may still be many untapped market opportunities for women to be invented, opportunities that could in turn improve women’s health,” say the co-authors.

Innovation inequality

Anecdotal evidence abounds on the progress of female inventors. For example, entrepreneur Surbhi Sarna took inspiration from his own fear of ovarian cancer to invent a better cancer detection tool. Another, Dr Patricia Bath, invented a more specific treatment for cataracts, which affects women more often than men. This new research backs them up with systematic analysis of the data, concluding that all-female inventor teams are 35% more likely to focus on women’s health than all-male teams. Interestingly, male inventors are less likely to focus their patented innovations on male or female health issues compared to their female counterparts.

While inventor teams with some women also follow a gender-focused model, the model is “strongest for all-female invention teams, lasts for decades, and is present even in narrow areas of invention.” ”, As summarized by the co-authors. This last point “suggests that the woman inventor-invention link is both the result of women working in research fields more focused on women. [e.g., gynecology] and women inventors identifying opportunities to invent for women regardless of the field in which they work [e.g., ocular surgery procedures]. “

Professor Samila warmly thanks the funding of this project by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement n ° 799330.

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[This article has been reproduced with permission from IESE Business School. www.iese.edu/ Views expressed are personal.]

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