We’re so used to hearing about under-representation of women in science and business that the statistics are starting to lose their shock value. But the truth is, they are still abysmal. And it’s not just women who are missing.
Innovation is a rarefied field. In the UK, among founders of innovative startups, men outnumber women 4:1. Over the last 15 years, just 7% of the people who applied for patents in the UK were women. We know less about how the picture looks for people from low-income backgrounds, or ethnic minorities, because data is so limited. We do, however, know that just 15% of UK scientists are from working-class backgrounds, even though these make up 35% of the overall population. Almost half of British Nobel Prize winners in the last 25 years were privately educated.
Recent studies from the US, Finland and Sweden have explored these patterns in more depth using patent data. They find that parents’ income is strongly correlated with the probability of becoming an inventor. For example, children with parents in the top 1% of the income distribution in the US are 10 times as likely to register a patent as those with below-median income parents. The US research also finds that only 18% of inventors are female, and that white children are three times as likely to become inventors as black children. The findings from Finland and Sweden put female participation at 10%.
Why does this matter? One reason is that if a narrow group of people are responsible for generating new ideas and technologies, these may not meet the needs of the wider population. Given who’s most likely to be purchasing them, it’s somewhat reassuring that 55% people who file patents for bras and corsets in the UK are women. It’s perhaps more concerning that only 6% of patent applicants in the most popular sub-class, ‘electric digital data processing’, are female. These are everyday technologies, used in a wide range of products and services, but their inventors come from a very narrow section of society.
"If a narrow group of people are responsible for generating new ideas and technologies, these may not meet the needs of the wider population."
Furthermore, it suggests we are missing out on a lot of talent. The US research paper mentioned above estimated that if under-represented groups’ potential was harnessed, the rate of innovation in America would quadruple. The research team coined the phrase ‘lost Einsteins’ to illustrate this point. And change isn’t happening quickly enough: at present rates, for example, it would take until 2080 to close the gender gap in patenting worldwide.
This is a social justice issue - all groups in society should have equal chance to take part in innovation and share the benefits of doing so. It is also an economic issue, given the importance of innovation to the economy.
And it has interesting policy implications. Crucially, the ‘lost Einsteins’ researchers created an economic model to compare possible policy options to increase innovation. They found that intervening to create a more diverse pool of innovators is likely to be more effective in stimulating innovation than providing financial incentives, like tax cuts, or reducing barriers to entry (for example by changing recruitment practices).
 Intellectual Property Office (2016) Gender Profiles in UK Patenting. An Analysis of Female Inventorship.
 Laurison, D., & Friedman, S. (2016) The Class Pay Gap in Higher Professional and Managerial Occupations. American Sociological Review, 81(4), 668–695.
 Kirby, P. (2016) Leading people 2016: the educational backgrounds of the UK professional elite. Sutton Trust.
 Bell, A., Chetty, R., Jaravel, X., Petkova, N. and Van Reenen, J. (2018) ‘Who Becomes an Inventor in America? The Importance of Exposure to Innovation’. The Equality of Opportunity Project. Available at: http://www.equality-of-opportunity.org/assets/documents/inventors_paper.pdf
 Aghion, P., Akcigit, U., Hyytinen, A. and Toivanen, O. (2017) The Social Origins of Inventors. NBER Working Paper No. 24110, December 2017.
 Ejermo, O., and Jung, T. (2014) Demographic patterns and trends in patenting: Gender, age and education of inventors. Technological Forecasting & Social Change 86, 110-124.
 According to the IPO report (cited above), Wearing Apparel -> Corsets; Brassieres’ is one of just two sub-classes of patents where female inventors are in the majority; the other is Wearing Apparel -> Shirts; Underwear; Baby Linen; Handkerchiefs.
 World Intellectual Property Organization (2016) World Intellectual Property Indicators - 2016
 Bell, A., Chetty, R., Jaravel, X., Petkova, N. and Van Reenen, J. (2017) Who Becomes an Inventor in America? The Importance of Exposure to Innovation. NBER Working Paper No. 24062, December 2017.