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Innovation, Creativity and the Gender Gap

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 shape our world

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.

Meet Özge Akbulut, whose ingenuity and creativity took her to some of the world’s top universities, and enabled her to become a materials  engineer. She is a serial inventor and is currently specializing in making  life-like surgical models to train surgeons in reconstructive surgery for  breast cancer patients and others. She has also invented inks for use in 3D printing and holds a patent relating to the flow properties of special-purpose cements. “What really inspires me is how science and technology makes it possible to find solutions to tackle some of the major problems facing humanity. It is only with innovative solutions that  we can solve these problems,” she says. Read Özge's story in the WIPO Magazine (photo: Courtesy of Surgitate).

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.

How the intellectual property system supports innovation and creativity

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.

VIDEO: Meet Siti Kamaluddin, film maker and co-founder of “Origin Films” in Brunei Darussalam.

Evidence shows fewer women use the IP system than men

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 more women than ever before are using the international patent system, there is still a long way to go before gender parity is achieved.

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.

Closing the gender gap would benefit everyone

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.

VIDEO: The indigenous women of Panama are improving livelihoods by turning their traditional knowledge into a marketable IP asset.

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.

Barriers to women innovators and creators

Women are clearly not inherently less innovative or creative than men. Countless examples of women in every region of the world have proved that time and again.

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:

  • Most importantly, the IP gender gap reflects widespread gender inequality in social and economic life. For example, in most countries far fewer girls than boys study scientific, technical, engineering and medical (STEM) subjects. In consequence, a relatively low proportion of women work in the sort of fields that produce most technical innovation. 
  • In part, these wider inequalities reflect prejudices, preconceptions and stereotypes about girls and women. All-too-many people – girls and women as well as boys and men – still think of women as being limited to certain traditional roles rather than potential leaders in science, technology, business and the arts. If stereotypes are not challenged, inequality can be self-perpetuating: girls and young women may lack role models to inspire them to fulfil their potential.
  • Inequality is also caused by inflexible economic and social structures which can restrict women’s career prospects. The problem of the “glass ceiling” is notorious. Talented women may succeed as students and in the early stages of their careers only to miss out on promotions later on, especially if they take time out to have children. Organizations and societies need to find ways to allow women (and men) to combine work and family life.
  • There may also be issues that relate more specifically to the IP system. Developing some types of IP, especially patents, may involve significant financial commitment, and there is an argument that women prioritize the stability of their family income, making them more risk averse than men.
  • In addition, some legal scholars have critiqued the IP system from a feminist perspective, arguing that although it is ostensibly neutral, certain elements of the law may embed bias against women.

Supporting positive change

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.

Meet Ms. Bethlehem Alemu, co-founder of footwear brand soleRebels which she is steering to global success. She is one of Ethiopia’s top female entrepreneurs. Her business which is built around recycled and environmentally-friendly materials, has “rejuvenated a community, invigorated a nation and revolutionized an industry.” (Photo: Flickr/WWEF)

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.