Over the years studies have shown that more patents are awarded to men than women. Although the gender gap is narrowing it has been reported that only 16.2% of biomedical patents are held by women. Some studies on this topic claim that health and medicine-related innovations more often address men’s health and our society could be missing out on important medications, devices, and technologies that could benefit women’s health. Recent studies highlight the importance of diversity of inventors and the impact this has on the development of diverse innovative solutions that would benefit society as a whole.
Recent studies on the diversity of inventors
Rembrand Koning lead a study published in Science addressing the impact the gender gap in Biomedical patents in the US has on the diversity of inventions. The study demonstrates that a lack of representation among inventors translates into a lack of breadth in inventions. They found that if there had been gender parity during the time of the study there would have been 6,500 more female-focused inventions within the Biomedicine sector. Additionally, teams made up of women were 35% more likely to have patents aimed at female consumers whilst still patenting male-focused ideas at similar rates to all-male teams.
In a separate study, scientists at Stanford Medicine developed a system to help measure the tangible impact of biomedical papers using patent citations. They reasoned that papers that have been cited in a patent are the ones most likely to inform real-world change and innovation. The team found that papers published by racially and ethnically diverse research teams were significantly more likely to be cited in patents. They reported that the gender gap appeared to persist during the 45-year period they examined, with papers with a female lead less likely to be cited in a patent. However, one of the authors did state a possible explanation for this could be the longer lag time in patent citations and this gap may close in the following years.
The consequences on innovation
These studies bring to light the importance of diversity within the innovation workforce. It seems apparent that having a more diverse team improves the quality of research and overall innovativeness. Failing to address the issue of gender diversity in particular, could lead to the loss of solutions that could benefit 50% of the world’s population.
In 2018, STAT published an article revealing the challenges start-ups face when trying to secure funding for drugs, treatments and medical devices related to women’s health in a widely male-dominated industry. For example, Antiva Biosciences, a 6-year-old biopharmaceutical company, is developing a treatment that would remove the need for women to undergo surgery for precancerous cervical lesions caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). The surgery itself can lead to devastating reproductive consequences and approximately 500,000 women in the US need the surgery every year.
Antiva CEO Gail Maderis found, from her own experience, that male OB-GYNs and VCs seemed to question the need for a drug stating that they believe the surgery is sufficient. However, female doctors tended to recognise the need for more treatments and VC firms with a woman partner in a decision-making role showed far more interest. Maderis’ view seems to point to a possible gender bias when it comes to investing in inventions related to women’s health, as one potential explanation. Consequently, a lack of investment leads to the slow development of life changing treatments and medical devices for women.
In recent years there has been a rise in biotech start-ups focusing on women’s health. However, to continue to close the gap, initiatives to support and educate female scientists on the commercialisation of ideas and entrepreneurship are needed, as well as encouraging and mentoring girls from a young age to pursue a career in science. Educating the industry as a whole on the importance and benefits of having a diverse innovation workforce could also be a possible solution to help ensure all parts of society can benefit from life changing inventions.