In the innovation economy, PhDs in STEM fields – such as engineering, chemistry and biology – are increasingly employed outside of academia, where they contribute to science commercial through patents.
But an MIT Sloan study shows that there is a gender gap in access to academic advisors who are prolific inventors — a key factor that influences whether students become early inventors themselves. A paper co-authored by Professor Sloan of MIT and Copenhagen Business School Mercedes Delgado found that female STEM doctoral students were 21% less likely than their male counterparts to have been trained by top inventor advisors – those who had received at least seven patents while employed by a university during the period of the study.
These advisors are important because they increase a doctoral student’s chances of filing their first patent during their doctoral program (or shortly after graduation) through a co-patent with this faculty advisor. According to the study, 4% of all STEM Ph.D.s became new inventors, but when they were advised by a top inventor professor, their chances of becoming new inventors increased to 23%.
The issue is complex, the researchers note, because multiple factors determine how many women become inventors. Even when women with STEM PhDs were matched with leading inventor professors, they were 17% less likely to become new inventors during their PhD (and in the five years after) compared to their counterparts male doctoral students in STEM.
“This means there is a ‘leaky pipeline’ of future female inventors, even when these women manage to gain access to the labs of top inventor advisors at top universities,” said Murray, associate dean for innovation.
“Unsurprisingly,” she said, “these findings have significant implications for inclusive innovation in STEM fields and, more broadly, for startups and large companies that hire these talented students.” »
Delgado and Murray’s research looked at approximately 185,000 doctors who graduated between 1995 and 2015 from the 25 U.S. universities with the highest number of patents. While the number of STEM PhDs has seen an annual growth rate of 4%, the number of new inventor PhDs has increased by 7% per year. This means that “over time, universities engage more and more doctoral students in patenting,” the authors write.
Of the top inventor advisors included in the study, only 8% were women (68 versus 808). The authors found that women with doctorates were more likely to be trained by women rather than men. However, once they took into account the pool of doctoral students by gender for each lead inventor advisor, the rate at which doctoral students became new inventors was at least 4 percentage points lower for women compared to the rate for men, regardless of the sex of the inventor. the counselor.
Early intervention and encouragement can help
There is no single solution to the gender imbalance among new inventors, but Delgado and Murray suggested several steps to consider to increase the number of women among new doctoral inventors.
One suggestion is to increase the number of women with PhDs trained by inventors’ top faculty advisors, although the researchers write that this would also require a better understanding of the advisor-advisee matching process. According to Delgado and Murray, new doctors should at least understand the importance of choosing their advisor.
Universities could also encourage female faculty themselves to engage in higher levels of patenting. According to the article, on average, female inventor advisors have a higher proportion of female doctoral advisors than male inventor advisors, even when controlling for dissertation topic.
“An indirect result of programs to encourage female faculty to engage in high levels of patenting will be greater numbers of women with PhDs as inventors,” the researchers write.
And to address the lack of leakage of future female STEM PhD inventors who have already been matched to the labs of top inventor advisors, the authors recommend actively encouraging these female students to be more involved in patenting. But Delgado and Murray write that the factors that determine patenting once students are in the lab are “poorly understood” and that there is still much to learn on the supply and demand sides.
Supply-side factors to consider include differences between female and male advisors in patent preferences, self-assessments of invention skills, and access to resources such as university technology transfer offices. On the demand side, “our findings are consistent with the idea that women’s innovation skills and contributions are somewhat undervalued by advisors,” Murray said. “Even in the same lab, with the same advisor, and in similar fields, women with PhDs have a lower probability of getting a patent.”
Early training in patent and business science is particularly important for students embarking on business careers, but it also impacts the U.S. economy as a whole.
“By providing more opportunities and access to continuing education and experience in the patenting process and other entrepreneurial activities to all doctoral students, but particularly to women, we will improve innovation overall of the economy at a time when this is particularly important for national and global competitiveness. “Murray said.