Closing the gender gap in patent filing

Freakonomics' Stephen Dubner on one scientifically-proven way that helps women embrace risk.

Kai Ryssdal: Time now for a little Freakonomics Radio. It's that moment every two weeks where we talk to Stephen Dubner, the co-author of the books and the blog of the same name. It is the hidden side of everything. Dubner, welcome back.

Stephen Dubner: Thank you, Kai. I want to talk to you about this economic buzzword these days -- innovation. You know, we've got to innovate our way back to greatness. Do you know who's got the most room for improvement in the innovation field?

Ryssdal: You and me, baby.

Dubner: That's the sad truth, isn't it? But if you look at the data on patents, patent filing, it turns out that woman are responsible for only about 7.5 percent of all patents filed.

Ryssdal: That's amazing. It leaves 93-something percent for men. That's ridiculous.

Dubner: Well, 92 something. But you know, math is not your strong suit.

Ryssdal: All right. I'm a history guy, not a math guy. It has to be science and engineering, right? And the lack of women therein.

Dubner: Yeah, that's a very sensible first thought, not a bad one, Kai. You're doing better. But it's a surprising fact. The fact is that even women with science and engineering degrees aren't much more likely to file a patent than women with other degrees. Now Jenny Hunt, who's an economist at Rutgers, she says that one big factor is you just don't find a lot of women in the kind of sweet-spot jobs within an industry that lead to a lot of patent filing.

Jenny Hunt: Men are more likely to be in jobs involving design work or development work. So the "D" in the R&D. And even within given fields of study, women are less likely to be in those jobs and that also reduces their patenting.

Now this idea, Kai, actually explains a lot of the male-female wage gap across the board in different industries -- whether it's business or medicine or education. Women end up gravitating toward the lower-paying jobs within those fields. So, say, a general practice physician versus a surgeon.

Ryssdal: All right. So is that women being steered away from those jobs,is that subtle discrimination? Or is it women making the career and family choice that men seldom make? I mean, there's a lot going on, right?

Dubner: It is all of the above, certainly. Probably most of the latter. A lot of it is by choice, but not all of it. Some of it is discrimination. But the bigger point that Jenny Hunt is making about the patent data is that by having such a low rate of female patenting -- even within the science and engineering fields -- the U.S. is missing an opportunity. She argues that closing the male-female in science and engineering would have a dramatic effect on the economy. That it might lift GDP per capita by as much as 2.7 percent.

Ryssdal: Wow, which is a huge jump given the way the economy is growing these days -- or not.

Dubner: Massive.

Ryssdal: How do we get there?

Dubner: It's interesting. There's a lot of research showing that men are bigger risk takers than women. Now, I talked to an economics professor in Britain. Her name is Alison Booth. She had cooked up an experiment to look at this male-female risk gap. She randomly assigned a bunch of first-year economic students to either single-sex classes or co-ed classes. So there were all female groups, all male groups, and mixed -- all randomly selected. Then she had each student take a test to determine risk aversion. And then after eight weeks of class, she gave all the students the same test. And here's what she learned:

Alison Booth: We found that the girls who'd been in single-sex groups all the way through the term were behaving the same as the boys who were in single-sex groups. So it was only the girls who were in the co-educational group who were making fewer risky choices.

Ryssdal: That's amazing. Two months away from boys or men, and women want more risk.

Dubner: Women seem to compete better when they're competing against women. And once you bring men into the equation, they kind of dial it down a little bit. That's what we're seeing in a lot of the research.

Ryssdal: That's wild. So get me back to patents and innovation. How do we get there?

Dubner: Well, here's one thought: if I'm a Google or a GE of the U.S. government and I truly want to maximize my resources, really get the most out of all my employees, I might try something that's so old-fashioned that it will strike a lot of people as repugnant.

Ryssdal: I know where you're going.

Dubner: I might actually segregate my workforce. I might actually let my sharpest women set up shop separately away from the men and just see what kind of wonderful stuff they can produce on their own.

Ryssdal: You know, I was going to give you a hard time, but it'd be actually interesting. I don't know. Stephen Dubner, Freakonomics.com is the website. We'll see you in a couple of weeks.

Dubner: OK Kai. Thanks very much.

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