Although gender equality in education has been growing slowly, only 15% of inventors employed by companies are women. A major new study shows that parents have a big role: girls with an inventor parent have a 13-fold increased likelihood of becoming an inventor. However, this advantage is lost if they have a younger brother. Researchers advocate implementing initiatives at an early age to combat the myth that inventors are men so that more women become inventors.
In 1903, Marie and Pierre Curie received the Nobel Prize in Physics for their exploration of radioactivity. Thirty-two years later, their daughter Irène Joliot-Curie received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her and her husband’s exploration of radioactivity. This story is very typical according to the researchers behind a study on the career choices of 1.4 million children. Not only because children seem to be inspired by their parents but especially because the parents’ research background is associated with a strong increase in the likelihood of daughters succeeding within the often male-dominated natural sciences. Another crucial factor for Irène Joliot-Curie, however, may have been that she had a younger sister, Ève.
“If Irène Joliot-Curie had had a little brother instead, what happened to many other older sisters who are the daughters of inventors could have happened to her. The likelihood of following in her parents’ footsteps would have been noticeably reduced if she had had a younger brother. We cannot be sure why, but we think the fear of sending daughters into a male-dominated career exceeds the desire to have a child pursue the same career path if a younger brother could fill this role more easily,” explains Hans Christian Kongsted, Professor of Applied Econometrics, Department of Strategy and Innovation, Copenhagen Business School.
5,000 inventors and their children
In recent decades, the gender gap in bachelors’ degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects has steadily narrowed. Worldwide, more than one third of such graduates are women, and including the health sciences, the figure is actually almost 50-50. Despite these trends, women comprise only 7–18% of inventors in most high-income countries.
“Years ago, this very low percentage could be explained by the fact that few women were represented within STEM, but this does not apply today. The gap between the proportion of women who have the necessary competencies for being inventors and the actual proportion of women who are inventors is surprisingly large. The fact that talent and creativity are evenly distributed across the sexes implies that there is an unexploited inventive potential: the “lost Einsteins” – or better, the lost “Marie Curies”. So several factors apply, and parental influence seems important,” says Hans Christian Kongsted
In collaboration with Karin Hoisl from the University of Mannheim, Germany and Myriam Mariani from Bocconi University, Italy, Hans Christian Kongsted therefore decided to explore the role of family environment and parental background in predicting the educational choices of girls and boys and the long-term effects on a child’s likelihood of becoming an inventor. The researchers used detailed registry data for about 1.4 million individuals born in Denmark between 1966 and 1985 to follow the educational trajectories of children from the choice of upper-secondary school, higher education and later the transition into inventorship.
“We define inventors as people registered with at least one European patent application, and the registry contained 5,000 inventors. The data confirm that family resources and parental education greatly affect the likelihood of becoming an inventor and that the effects are greater for sons than for daughters. But daughters still have a 13-fold greater chance of becoming an inventor if mom or dad is too – unless a boy shows up,” explains Hans Christian Kongsted.
Probably unconscious influence
The researchers found that the whole effect of parental inventorship on a daughter’s inventive potential can be lost. They see few possible explanations for this sharp decline: parents can have latent stereotypical attitudes about boys’ and girls’ abilities to cope with certain challenges and their desire to push their children in a direction that ensures contentment.
“Perhaps parents try to spare their daughters the challenges the parents encountered or observed in their careers, since inventor parents are especially aware of and know about this. They know from experience how hard they had to struggle and that the likelihood of success in inventorship is greater for sons and the risk of failure and high personal costs is greater for daughters,” says Hans Christian Kongsted.
Although the data only apply to Denmark, the researchers think that the trends would be similar in other countries. In Denmark, most normal education is tuition-free at all levels, which means that family budgets do not greatly limit educational opportunities, and gender equality is considered high in Denmark. Denmark ranks second in Europe for gender equality according to the 2021 Gender Equality Index (data mostly from 2019), with 77.8 of 100 points.
“Certain aspects of Denmark’s education system or culture could mean that our findings are not generally representative. But I think that these trends would be even stronger in other countries with lower gender equality than Denmark,” adds Hans Christian Kongsted.
Hans Christian Kongsted also emphasises that the study does not confirm the mechanisms behind the data and that the actions are most likely not conscious but perhaps small signals and actions such as homework or attending a technical museum together. Previous studies have shown that fathers’ backgrounds are relatively more important for the educational choices of sons than for daughters, and this is especially important since most inventor parents are fathers.
“The data suggest that it might also go the other way, so fathers and mothers in particular project their interest on a child, and if there is a son, then they apparently make unconscious choices. Increasing the proportion of women inventors requires more than merely encouraging girls to enrol in STEM subjects. We need to combat the image that inventorship is a male domain. We not only need more Einsteins but especially more Marie Curies,” concludes Hans Christian Kongsted.