As Women’s History Month draws to a close, let’s take a moment to celebrate some of the impressive innovations of female inventors and take a closer look at the evolution of the female inventor over the past 150 years.
While the timeline below highlights contributions by female inventors associated with many of the technologies still being used in some form today, a study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research estimates that in 2010, less than 20 percent of all patents named at least one female inventor. Using this data along with available data on female inventors from the late 1800s and 1970s, the trend line predicts that by 2050, we may only see about one-quarter of all patents issued naming at least one female inventor., Other statistical analysis claims that the amount of female inventors from 2010 to 2015 averaged about 10.3 percent, which, based on the trend line, would result in less than 15 percent of all patents issued in 2050 naming at least one female inventor.
Regardless of the data set used (of which there are many and none officially issued from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office), the growth in the number of female inventors still clearly lags behind the growing number of women obtaining STEM, i.e., science, technology, engineering, and math, degrees in 2015 (about 30 percent according to the Office of the Chief Economist). There is no clear answer to why this lag exists, but a review of the path to female inventorship may lend some insight.
Challenges for Female Inventors Before the Mid-1900s
Prior to the 20th century, women, especially married women, faced restrictions on the ability to own property (such as patents), enter into contracts, earn a salary, and gain the technical skills and knowledge that often leads to a successful invention.
These restrictions made it difficult, if not impossible, for an innovative woman to be motivated to pursue an invention or, if she did, properly be credited with her invention. For instance, take Margaret Knight’s machine for producing the flat-bottom grocery bag. Even though Knight designed a machine that could produce 1,000 flat-bottom bags per day, she had to rely on the courts to prove that she, rather than Charles Annan, conceived of the invention. Apparently, after Annan viewed a prototype being built for Knight, he filed for and obtained a patent detailing the invention. It was only after Knight produced copious designs and drawings on her invention that she was awarded U.S. Patent Nos. 116,842 and 220,925 in the 1870s.
Similarly, Susan Hibbard, who invented the turkey feather duster in 1874, turned to the patent court when her husband tried to patent her feather duster. While the details of the case are vague, reports indicate that when the court asked Hibbard’s husband to define the novel feature of the invention, he was unable to recite any such features. Susan Hibbard was ultimately granted U.S. Patent No. 177,939 directed to an “Improvement in Feather Dusters” on May 30, 1876.
It was not until the middle of the 20th century, when new educational and professional opportunities for women emerged, that the country saw an increase in patents granted to women. Before that time, women were generally excluded from what we refer to today as STEM education. As a result, women had fewer early opportunities to work in the fields that typically lead to patentable inventions. And if the road to obtaining a patent was challenging for women, the road to commercializing that technology was equally onerous.
Until the 1970s, banks routinely denied business loans to women. Without capital, a patent is merely a nice plaque to display on the wall.
Entering the market was equally challenging until recent years. Many female inventors worked tirelessly to overcome the stigma associated with women in business during the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries (mainly their purported physical and mental inferiority to men) and win over the support of investors, manufacturers and retailers. It was not uncommon for female inventors to be rejected hundreds of times before one manufacturer would reluctantly agree to make the product or one investor would contribute just enough capital to jumpstart the company.
Female Inventors Begin Overcoming Obstacles
Despite earlier challenges, numerous success stories from the latter 20th century and early 21st century demonstrate that an idea, hard work and perseverance can overcome any remaining roadblocks for female inventors today. For example, Liquid Paper correction fluid was developed and commercialized by Bette Nesmith Graham in the 1950s using a blender and some paint in her kitchen. Graham’s invention was born out of frustration with having to retype entire pages because of one typo.
After watching painters cover up their mistakes with a paint layer while decorating bank windows for the holidays, Graham set out to develop a paint-based mixture that matched the shade of her company’s stationary so she too could cover up her mistakes. Graham built her company over the next decade and eventually sold the company to Gillette Corporation in 1980.
Not to be outdone by Graham’s “homemade” invention, Sara Blakely conceived of her pantyhose undergarment invention, now well-known as Spanx, after realizing that she did not have any undergarments to make her white pants look smooth. She cut the feet from her control top pantyhose and began her quest to refine and commercialize her idea. Blakely was awarded her first patent, which she drafted herself, in 2001, found a manufacturer willing to make the product in 2000, and was named the world's youngest, self-made female billionaire by Forbes Magazine and one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2012.
The Continuing Evolution of the Female Inventor
There is no doubt that innovation from any gender is essential to advance the production and mainstreaming of new products and technologies. However, available statistics clearly show that women remain underrepresented in this arena.
With technology moving quickly (for example, the evolving advancements of self-driving cars and artificial intelligence), obtaining a patent is more important than ever. By encouraging women to pursue a STEM-centered education and instilling confidence in them to speak up and take credit for their inventions, we can help foster a world of innovation that welcomes and appreciates female inventors alongside their male counterparts — a world that makes success stories like those of Bette Nesmith Graham and Sara Blakely an everyday occurrence.
To paraphrase what Michelle Lee, former director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, told "PBS NewsHour" in 2016: We can’t afford to leave any inventors behind. You never know who’s going to come up with that next big idea.
Republished with permission. This article originally appeared on Law360 on March 29, 2018.