MIT Sloan professor Fiona Murray and Mercedes Delgado of Copenhagen Business School recently discovered a startling gender disparity in access to successful faculty mentors for inventors in their ground-breaking study. According to the study's analysis of 185,000 STEM PhDs from 25 illustrious U.S. colleges between 1995 and 2015, female STEM PhD students were 21% less likely than their male counterparts to have received mentorship from top inventor advisors—those who had at least seven patents during their university career.

The implications of this gender gap are profound. Co-patenting with faculty advisors has emerged as a critical factor in the innovation journey. The study demonstrates that PhD students working alongside top inventor mentors are significantly more likely to file their inaugural patent during or after their doctoral program, with a staggering 23% of them achieving this milestone. In stark contrast, a mere 4% of STEM PhDs managed to do so without the guidance of a top-innovator faculty member.

Become a Subscriber

Please purchase a subscription to continue reading this article.

Subscribe Now

Adversity-matched with top inventor mentors, female STEM PhDs were 17% less likely to embark on the path of innovation during their PhD and the subsequent two years compared to their male counterparts. This alarming finding underlines the presence of a "leaky pipeline" for aspiring female inventors, even within the top inventor labs at leading universities.

The study also sheds light on the disparity in gender representation among inventors and advisors. Only 8% of these influential figures were female, underscoring a stark gender imbalance in mentorship within STEM fields. This has tangible consequences, as male top innovators were found to be less inclined to mentor female PhDs, further exacerbating the gender divide in innovation.

Delgado and Murray propose several strategies to narrow the gender gap among young inventors. Firstly, there is a pressing need to increase the number of female PhDs mentored by top inventors and faculty advisors. This, however, necessitates a deeper understanding of the advisor-advisee matching process. Additionally, universities should actively encourage female academics to engage in patenting, as this has a direct correlation with increased female representation among inventor PhD candidates.

The authors emphasize the importance of early intervention and encouragement for female PhD students aspiring to become inventors. Programs that actively support female professors in their patenting endeavors can indirectly lead to a surge in female inventor PhDs, thereby plugging the leaky pipeline.

This not only benefits individual career prospects but also bolsters the U.S. economy at a crucial juncture of national and global competitiveness.

In essence, by dismantling the barriers that hinder female participation in the innovation economy, we pave the way for a more inclusive, vibrant, and economically robust STEM landscape.