UC Berkeley News


Haas researcher addresses gender, patents in academia
Female life scientists patent their discoveries less than half as often as their male peers. Risk-aversion may be a factor - though the worry is over their careers, not the rough-and-tumble of the marketplace

| 24 August 2006

Although the gender gap in the academic life sciences has narrowed, the gap between male and female faculty members' commercialization of scientific research - as measured by patenting activity - remains wide, says a Haas School of Business assistant professor whose research focuses on academic entrepreneurship, technology strategy, and innovations. Indeed, women life scientists in higher education patent their work at less than half the rate of their male peers, according to a Science magazine article published earlier this month by Waverly Ding and two co-authors.

Waverly Ding (Jonathan King photo)

"There are many studies that investigate the gender gap in other areas of attainment such as productivity, promotions, and representation in elite universities," says Ding. "But little has been said about the gender gap in commercialization of a faculty member's discoveries."

In another, unpublished paper, Ding found that the gender gap extends to the participation of women faculty on scientific advisory boards of biotechnology companies, which is even one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.

Ding and her co-authors decided to investigate gender differences in one specific commercial activity - patenting - because it 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.

In a random sample of 4,227 life scientists over a 30-year period, Ding and her co-authors found that of the 903 women in the group, 51 (5.65 percent) were patent holders (of a total of 92 patents). By contrast, 431 of the 3,324 male scientists in the sample (13 percent) 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 percent of the rate of male scientists who are comparable in terms of experience and time since earning their Ph.D.s, Ding and her co-authors found.

The authors looked at four "mutually exclusive" subsamples: male and female patent holders and male and female non-patent holders. They found that male patenters typically have published the most academic papers and have received the most grant funding from the National Institutes of Health, while male and female patenters have more co-authorships with industry scientists than do non-patenters of either gender. 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 those by men - evidence that their work has as much scholarly impact and is equally important.

Concern for career advancement

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 their concern that pursuing commercial opportunities might hinder their university careers.

"Most (but not all) women had few contacts in industry," the authors determined. Without those connections, these women 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 that few senior faculty made the transition to patenting, they reported that female and male junior faculty held similar attitudes toward patenting.

Ten years after getting their Ph.D.s, the youngest group of female faculty studied (those who'd earned their Ph.D.s between 1986 and 1995) had an average patenting rate similar to that of their male colleagues. By contrast, male faculty who'd earned their degrees between 1967 and 1975 had an average patenting rate 4.4 times that of their 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 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 concluded. "If this trend continues, we may observe further declines in the magnitude of the gender gap in commercializing academic research."