By Chris Dart  

Women invented the fire escape, windshield wipers and Kevlar. Hedy Lamarr, though better known for her beauty and career as a movie star, was a prolific inventor. She devised the frequency-hopping radio technology that WiFi, Bluetooth and GPS are based on.

And yet, for all these achievements — and countless others — women are massively underrepresented among the ranks of today’s inventors. A study by the Canadian Intellectual Property Office found that in 2015–16, only 12 per cent of patents were filed by women. In some other developed countries, the numbers are even worse. Women make up just seven per cent of patent-filers in the U.K. and five per cent in Germany.

So what’s keeping women from becoming inventors? And how do we fix it?

Maydianne Andrade is a professor in the department of biological sciences at the University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC). In addition to studying the mating habits of spiders, Andrade is UTSC’s vice-dean of faculty affairs and equity. As a result, she spends a lot of time thinking about issues of equity in science and technology, keeping in mind that women inventors tend to face discrimination on two fronts: as both STEM professionals and as entrepreneurs.

Over the last decade, a lot of individuals and organizations have joined the push to get girls interested in careers in science, technology, engineering and math, also known as STEM subjects. According to Andrade, these efforts are starting to pay off in some areas, such as life sciences.

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But other fields, like engineering and computer science — which tend to be more lucrative, and have more opportunity for invention — remain disproportionately male. Part of the problem, she says, is how we think of scientists and inventors. Quite simply, most of us still think of them as men.

“There’s a study [done] with kids where they say, ‘Draw ‘science,’’ and they don’t give them any other instruction,” Andrade explains. “In the ’60s and ’70s, less than one per cent of students would draw scientists as a female. By 2016, about 34 per cent would draw women. So things are changing, but they’re still changing slowly. That’s still just one third of people who think that a scientist looks like a woman when we’re 50 per cent of the population.”

Some young women are defying the status quo. A group of ingenious high school students from Mississauga, Ont., for instance, devised a method of extracting clean water from thin air. Their invention, called Stillae — as featured in the documentary The Nature of Invention — could be life-saving for people living in arid regions with little access to clean water. However, while a great idea is one thing, making it a reality is another.

Invention doesn’t just require scientific skills. It also requires a level of entrepreneurship and drive that parents often don’t instil in girls.

“Being an entrepreneur focuses on a kind of competitiveness,” Andrade says. “And our expectations for girls is not that they will be competitive. There’s a huge amount of social science literature that [says people] expect girls to be kind and friendly and collaborative, and that’s not necessarily what an entrepreneur is expected to be. They have to be pushing their idea forward; they have to be fighting for recognition.”

Ann Makosinski, also featured in The Nature of Invention, is a B.C. inventor in her early twenties who won the 2013 Google Science Fair with an inspired invention. Ann saw a single problem — her friend in another country had no power and couldn’t study at night — which led to a simple solution. She invented the Hollow Flashlight, a portable torch that’s not powered by batteries but by the heat of your hand.

Getting inventions from paper to production is often the hardest part. Andrade points to the U.S.-based VentureGirls as a group that’s attempting to get girls involved in both STEM fields and entrepreneurialism. Ultimately, though, she says it’s not enough to encourage girls. The culture around them has to change, too.

“Something has to change on the other side,” she says. “It’s not all about teaching the girls they can do it — it’s also about ensuring there’s actually a place they can do it in a way they’re respected.”

Watch The Nature of Invention on The Nature of Things.

 

 

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