Societies all around the world have benefited from the work of women inventors, designers and artists. But data show that fewer women than men use the intellectual property system. That gender gap matters for a number of reasons, perhaps most importantly because gender equality is a human right and because we are all better off when women and girls are empowered to make their full contribution to innovation and creativity.
Innovation and creativity are the engines of human progress. By innovation, we mean new products or new ways of doing things, and by creativity we mean new forms of original artistic expression as portrayed, for example, in songs, books, pictures, films and other, emerging media.
Since the beginning of time, female and male innovators and creators have transformed our world through the power of their imagination. And today new innovations and forms of artistic expression are transforming our lives at an unprecedented rate. All the products that we enjoy today are the result of years of research and development, experimentation and invention. They are all effectively creations of the human mind.
That makes innovation immensely valuable in economic terms. In fact, a recent study by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) found that in modern manufacturing intangible assets like inventions, designs and specialist knowledge are worth nearly twice as much as tangible assets such as raw materials. And the cultural value of creative works is incalculable. Stories, music and the visual arts are means by which people and societies express and share their deepest identities and weave a rich cultural heritage. They are literally priceless.
It is therefore in all our interests to support innovation and creativity. That is what the intellectual property (IP) system seeks to do. There are many different types of rights protecting different types of IP such as inventions, designs and creative works. In general, they serve one main purpose: to encourage more innovation and creativity by making sure that innovators and creators can gain a fair reward for their work and earn a living from it.
IP rights allow rights holders to stop other people from copying or using their IP without their permission. This means that rights holders are able to charge a reasonable price for using IP that is economically valuable. The prospect of an economic reward encourages people and businesses to invest in developing useful innovations and creations.
Most IP rights last for a limited time only, and can only be acquired when certain conditions are met. There are also rules that allow for the use, under certain limited circumstances, of different types of IP without first having to obtain the right holder’s permission. These arrangements help ensure that that there is a balance between the interests of innovators and creators and those of the general public, so that everyone benefits from IP.
The IP system is designed to be open to anyone who meets the conditions set out in national IP laws. Different countries determine their IP laws within a framework of regional and international treaties developed over many years to provide balanced and effective protection.
But the system is not used equally by everyone. Certain countries and regions outperform others when it comes to producing IP, and there are also significant disparities between men and women when it comes to acquiring and owning IP rights.
Analysis from WIPO shows that less than a third of all international patent applications filed in 2015 included women inventors. That was a big improvement on the 1995 figure of just 17 percent, with some countries and regions performing notably better than the global average. Nonetheless, the standout fact is that far more men than women gain patents for their inventions.
While comparable international data on the gender of owners of other IP rights such as industrial designs are not yet available (WIPO researchers are working on this), there is evidence of gender gaps there, too. For example, according to one estimate, only around 15 percent of those working in industrial design in the United States are female.
Gender disparities are harder to measure in relation to creative works such as books, music and films, because the IP rights that protect those works – copyright and related rights – generally arise automatically and do not need to be registered with a central authority. That makes it difficult to track such rights.
But all the available information suggests that women lag behind their male counterparts in the creative industries. Many creative professions are dominated by men. For instance, the United Nations reports that just 7 percent of the world’s film directors and 20 percent of screenwriters are female. Similarly, a study of the global art market has revealed that works by women artists fetch less at auction than those by men. And male authors register twice as many copyrights in the United States as their female counterparts.
The IP gender gap should concern us all.
Gender equality is a human right and the necessary foundation for peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world. Not only is it one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals; it is mainstreamed in all the Goals.
Furthermore, anything that restricts innovation and creativity means we are all less well-off. It means we are missing out on the potential benefits of those “lost” great ideas.
There is plenty of evidence that increased participation by women improves the innovation performance of organizations and societies. Research shows that diverse, inclusive teams are more innovative, and diverse companies are more profitable.
In part, this is simply a question of numbers: by widening the pool of talent, one increases the chances of valuable new insights emerging. But women can also bring a different perspective, and women innovators help to ensure that new products and processes meet the needs of the whole population, not just the male half.
So there is also a clear business case for encouraging more women to use the IP system.
How, then, can we make the innovation system more inclusive and encourage more participation by women? To start with, we have to understand the factors that are holding them back.
So why is there such a significant gender gap in use of the IP system? A roundtable of experts at WIPO in 2017 provided a useful overview of some major issues:
The challenges are enormous but there is growing recognition of the need to close the IP gender gap. Around the world, organizations and individuals are working to encourage and support women innovators and creators. Initiatives range from international campaigns to promote women’s involvement in science to more targeted schemes by particular countries, regions and groups.
WIPO is taking a leading role. With the adoption of its Policy on Gender Equality in 2014, the Organization committed to making gender equality a cross-cutting objective in all its work. That means, among other things, ensuring equal access to WIPO’s services, building capacities of and providing technical support to both women and men, striving for equal numbers of men and women at all levels of its staff and encouraging the same among member state representatives at its meetings. It also involves continuing and extending its pioneering research into gender and the IP system and undertaking a range of projects to identify and promote examples of innovation and creativity by women.
World Intellectual Property Day 2018 is another important step in this mission. By bringing together all its stakeholders across the world to celebrate the achievements of women innovators and creators, it will challenge outdated stereotypes and encourage even more girls and women to create valuable intellectual property.