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Diversity and inclusion

Female PhD students miss out on chance to become inventors, finds study

18 Sep 2023
business innovation
A study has found that female PhD students receive fewer chances to become inventors than their male counterparts (courtesy:iStock/Andrei-Nikolaev)

Women in technical PhD programmes are given less hands-on experience in patenting and commercial science compared to their male counterparts. That is according to a new study by researchers in Demark and the US, which finds that this lack of experience results in fewer women becoming inventors. The team say the findings have implications for diversity and inclusion in academia as well as in startups and larger firms (Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 120 e2200684120).

The study was carried out by Mercedes Delgado from Copenhagen Business School and Fiona Murray from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who examined data on PhD students trained at the top 25 US universities — as ranked by patent counts — between 1995 and 2015. They found that, overall, 4% of PhD candidates file a patent as a result of their studies. Yet while women make up about 30% of PhD students at the 25 universities, they only made up 20.7% of new inventor PhDs. This inventor gender deficit occurs even among students working in the same lab on similar topics under the same advisors.

According to the researchers, the difference between genders could be because supervisors who publish many patents tend to serve as a catalyst for students to also become adept at patenting – but those supervisors tend to opt for male students. “Female PhDs have a 21% lower likelihood of [working] with advisors who are top inventors than male PhDs — and even when [they do they] are 17% less likely than their male PhD counterparts to become new inventors,” says Murray.

Early intervention

Alongside this “leaky pipeline”, other factors identified for the gender split include male and female students having different levels of access to resources and self-assessment of skills. Another factor, according to the researchers, is that “women’s innovation skills and contributions are somewhat under-valued by advisors”.

The team propose several steps to reverse the trend. One would be to refine the advisor–advisee matching process to place more women with doctoral supervisors who are themselves established inventors. Another is to support women already in faculty positions to engage in high levels of patenting, thereby increasing the pool of women inventors who can serve as doctoral advisors.

The researchers now plan to explore the effectiveness of some of their proposed interventions, alongside quantifying the long-term impacts of having — or not having — an early training in patenting and commercial science. “Imagine you became a new inventor during your PhD studies,” adds Delgado. “We think this can have a long-lasting effect, because after graduation you enter an organization and already know how to do commercial science — so you’ll be an even more productive inventor during your career.”

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