Lisa Seacat DeLuca is the most prolific inventor in IBM history. She also happens to be a woman, a detail that’s notable perhaps only because of the outsized number of men who hold patents in the United States.
DeLuca, who’s focused on wearables and mobile security, has more than 400 patents and patent applications in her name. (One recent invention is a device that shares her home network’s Wi-Fi password to approved visitors when they walk in the door, according to Security Intelligence, an IBM publication.)
Since 1977, women have quintupled their representation among patent holders, yet they still hold “an extremely small share of patents,” according to a new paper by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Four decades ago, 3 percent of all patents listed at least one woman inventor. As of 2010, nearly 19 percent of patents did. Overall, more than 81 percent of patents include no women.
At this rate, based on how things have changed in the past 15 years, women aren’t expected to reach parity in patenting until 2092, the report says.
Even among filings that include women, fewer than 8 percent of patents list women as the primary inventor. In those cases, the patents are most often for technologies associated with “traditional female roles, such as jewelry and apparel.” Researchers attribute the patent gender gap to a shortage of women in science, technology, engineering, and math fields—and by extension to the dearth of women who earn degrees in these areas, compared with men. But other reports have suggested that this so-called pipeline problem plays only a tiny part in explaining why women hold so few patents, as Karen Frenkel wrote for the Association for Computing Machinery in 2013, “women with such degrees are barely more likely to patent than women who lack them.” (And, indeed, the pipeline problem has at times been a sort of scapegoat for technology companies that acknowledge a lack of diversity in their workforces, but do nothing to improve it.)