Necessity is the mother of invention. So why aren’t more mothers inventors?
One of the very best parts of my job is talking to people who have dealt with a problem by making something new. They’re excited about what their invention can do to help. It’s an absolute honor to be part of the process of protecting their ideas. I have noticed something odd, though, about the folks I talk with. Though women make up about half of the world’s population, only about ten percent of the inventors I work with are women.
Some of this can be explained by the field I work in. The inventions I work on relate to software, electrical, and mechanical inventions. My background is in computer science and I worked in software development before becoming a patent lawyer. Women make up around 15-20% of software developers. The proportion of women is a bit higher for engineers in other disciplines.
However, my experience holds true across inventorship in all technologies. In fact, fewer than eight percent of patents list a woman as the primary inventor; 81 percent have no women listed as an inventor at all. So what gives? Surely women have problems to solve. A quick google of “mom hacks” garners over 28 million hits.
This is more than a curiosity. If necessity is the mother of invention, invention is the mother of our collective future. Mary Anderson invented the windshield wiper, allowing for all to travel (including commuting to work!) regardless of weather. Fast-forwarding to today, many businesses are scrambling to obtain patents in the field of self-driving cars. These vehicles, they argue, will allow for safer roads for all. Just as Mary Anderson’s wiper may have changed our ability to go to work or transmit goods across the country regardless of downpours, self-driving cars may allow for a more mobile, safer, and productive workforce.
Solutions presented by inventors shape how we see and solve problems. How we see and solve problems is impacted by our individual experiences. For example, a few years ago, I found it nearly impossible to wake on dark mornings in the middle of winter. I had bought a sunrise clock that increased light as wake time approached; however, I still found it easy to sleep through its gentle approach to luminescence. What I wanted was the equivalent of my mom turning on the light over my head and yelling “GET UP! IT’S TIME FOR SCHOOL!” So one weekend, we strapped a servo motor to an microcontroller, 3d printed a long arm for the motor, programmed an alarm on the microcontroller, and taped the whole thing to a soda can that fit under our overhead light switch. When morning came, the arm would hit the light switch, creating a jarring amount of overhead light (though much of the time the crunch of the can was enough to wake me up).
The point is we all solve problems differently. By not having certain voices in the conversation (i.e. by not having very many female inventors), we may be missing out on some good solutions.
This New Year, my resolution is to help folks understand how important it is to hear those voices. If you’re part of an organization that gives people the tools to invent or someone who is also concerned that we’re missing out on these voices, let’s talk. I can’t wait to see what we can do!
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