Women: Where are your patents?

While compiling a database of life scientists participating in biotech start-up companies since the 1970s, Toby E. Stuart of Harvard Business School in Boston gave a start when he ran across the name Nancy. It stood out, the sociologist says, because it was the only obviously female name among the first 70 entries. They discovery prompted him and two of his colleagues at other business schools to investigate additional gender gaps among life scientists in academia. The researchers found a doozie: men and women with potentially money making patents.

The trio randomly chose 4,200 scientists from the life science fields most likely to foster commercial spin-offs and then examined 30 years of patent records.

In the Aug. 4 Science, Stuart and his team report finding that 5.65 percent of the women in this group were patent holders versus 13 percent of men. Because “women faculty members patent at about 40 percent of the rate of men,” many women lost out on significant extra income from royalties and entrepreneurial opportunities, says Stuart.

Attempting to explain the male-female differential, the researchers tracked down some 23,400 journal articles that the 900 women in their study had published. Then, they matched each paper, by year, with one from a man in the study’s sample. Overall, women’s papers were cited by other scientists slightly more often than were the men’s, thereby offering “no evidence that women do less important work,” Stuart says.

Some of the older women in the study said in interviews that they had felt “excluded from industry relationships” that might have led them to pursue commercial aspects of their work, Stuart reports.

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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