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UC Berkeley Press Release

Study addresses gender, patents in academia

– Women life scientists in higher education patent their work at a rate of 40 percent of their male peers, according to a new article co-authored by Waverly Ding, an assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley's Haas School of Business. The article appears in today's (Aug. 4) issue of Science magazine.

Although the gender gap in the academic life sciences has narrowed, the gap in female faculty members' 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 Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management and Toby E. Stuart of Harvard Business School.

"There are many studies that investigate the gender gap in other areas of attainment such as productivity, promotions and representation in elite universities," Ding said. "But there was little being 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In another unpublished paper, Ding found that the gender gap extends to the participation of women faculty on scientific advisory boards of biotechnology companies, which is even one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's research focuses on academic entrepreneurship, technology strategy and innovations.

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 noted.

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

The authors found that male patenters typically have the highest number of academic papers that are published; 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 as 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, 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 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 earning their Ph.D.s 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 their female counterparts 10 years after getting their degrees.

Ding cited 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 concluded. "If this trend continues, we may observe further declines in the magnitude of the gender gap in commercializing academic research."