World Intellectual Property Day 2018: Women in IP

Dr Penny Gilbert, partner at top-ranked IP law firm Powell Gilbert, and a WWL Thought Leader in the international patent law arena, discusses the importance of female involvement in IP and how the situation can be improved in the future.

Dr Penny Gilbert, Powell Gilbert


Each year on 26 April, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) recognises World Intellectual Property Day to raise awareness of the impact of intellectual property rights and to celebrate the creativity and innovation they inspire. This year’s campaign centres on women in the world of IP, in order to highlight the growing role of women in driving global innovation forward. Recent figures from the UK Intellectual Property Office highlight a marked discrepancy in the number of female patent holders within the UK.

The most recent report on gender profiles in patenting from the UK IPO shows that only about 7 per cent of patents are filed by women in the UK. While the findings are a moderate improvement from the previous report on patenting gender profiles, which demonstrated that in 1980 less than 4 per cent of all patent filing was made by female inventors, the UK is being outperformed by France (12.8 per cent), Russia (15.7 per cent) and South Korea (10.1 per cent). A more granular analysis shows that female inventors make more contributions to patent filing in the fields of medicine, biochemistry and chemistry than in IT, computing and electronics. Female inventors also contribute to inventions in gender stereotypical fields such as clothing, baking and domestic articles.

The percentage of women in careers that are most likely to lead to the making of inventions is also correspondingly low. There are too few women engineers, scientists and IT specialists – so in order to see more women filing patents, we should be encouraging girls to take up science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects at school and continuing with them at university or in STEM apprenticeships. Currently, only about 14 per cent of the UK workforce in STEM industries is female, and far fewer girls study STEM subjects at secondary school and university than boys. For example, WISE, the campaign for gender balance in science, technology and engineering, reports a huge drop-off in the number of girls studying STEM subjects at the age of 16, with just 35 per cent of girls choosing maths, physics or a technical qualification, compared to 94 per cent of boys.

Inspiring more girls to study STEM subjects and getting them to continue to research will be the key driver for increasing the number of women inventors in the UK. At present, we are missing out on valuable ideas and inventive contributions from half of the population. While patent law might previously have referenced the “man skilled in the art”, it is now the “person skilled in the art” that is enshrined in statute. There are no barriers to women filing patent applications and obtaining patents other than their educational and career choices and the stereotypes around these.

Let’s not forget that some of the greatest scientists and inventors throughout history have been women – from Marie Curie and Rosalind Franklin to Grace Hopper (whose work helped to develop one of the earliest computer programming languages) and Stephanie Kwolek (the inventor of Kevlar). We should tell their stories and do our very best to inspire our daughters to take an interest in science – and make sure that they don’t just leave STEM jobs for the boys.

Hopefully World Intellectual Property Day’s focus on the contributions of women to innovation will help inspire more girls and young women, giving them the confidence to think about careers in technical subjects – and about filing patents. We should all look forward to the day where women’s innovations in science, engineering and computing are as celebrated as they are in the arts and more creative fields, with the ultimate aim of gender equality across the spectrum of IP rights.

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