Theory to Practice

The lost Marie Curies: the role of the family in forging the next generation of women inventor

The context

In recent decades, the gender gap among university graduates with degrees in STEM has been steadily shrinking. In 2013, for example, just 34% of women graduated in STEM fields, a percentage which rose to 48% in 2017 (including health-related degrees). But today, it’s still men who are the ones patenting the most inventions. This means that if we look at how many women would have the skills to become inventors, how many actually are, the difference is striking. Since talent and creativity are equally distributed between the sexes, there seems to be an untapped inventive potential, the "lost Einsteins," or better yet, the "lost Marie Skłodowska Curies."

The early literature on the gender gap in innovation focused on women’s choice to enter STEM fields, assuming higher education as a prerequisite for becoming an inventor. But according to the latest research, other forces of influence are at play, such as those coming from the environment where girls and boys live, in particular, from the family. These forces are central in shaping the next generation of inventors, be they women or men. Until now, the general idea was that that the family and the home environment provided the objective background characteristics and resources that could potentially give rise to future opportunities, with the active role of parents garnering less attention. Yet they are the ones who act as intermediaries in the acquisition and interpretation of external information, norms and values; they contribute to forming any stereotypes or prejudices that pass on to their boys and girls.

The family is the most important intergenerational transmitter of social values. Indeed, parents, as members of society, are exposed to outside information, which they interpret within the framework of their beliefs. Based on these interpretations, they develop expectations about the opportunities and outcome of their sons' and daughters' choices. These expectations can be related to the gender of their children in many ways, and can influence a course of study or a career in a non-gender-neutral way.

As far as the aptitude for inventions, the influence of parents as intermediaries of external information is particularly relevant if one or both parents are inventors themselves. In such a case, they would be aware of the characteristics of an environment that fosters inventiveness.

The research

The present study offers a review of the latest literature addressing factors affecting the likelihood of becoming an inventor. This is then combined with a series of studies that aim to ascertain the extent to which gender matters when parents pass on their professional interests to their children.

For our empirical analysis, we used data on individuals born between 1966 and 1985 who lived in Denmark when they turned 19 (typically, the age when students graduate from high school). We were able to collect comprehensive information on 1.2 million individuals: their educational background; their parents' educational background; their family lives during their childhood and adolescence; where they lived; and their household income. The reference sample includes about 4,600 inventors (i.e., Danish residents who have applied for a European patent). Only 15% of these inventors were women.

To estimate the impact of inventor parents on the likelihood that their sons and daughters will become inventors themselves, we had to detect this effect net of all other factors at play, such as educational background or the innate talent of daughters and sons. We tackled this challenge in two ways:

  • by isolating the effect of parents who are themselves inventors from the effect of a number of directly observable and typically related attributes (the parents' financial resources, their level of education and field of study, and where child's family lives);
  • by using an experimental approach that relies on the gender composition of siblings and exploits the random occurrence of the gender of a second-born sibling.

    Our analysis proves the importance of the role played by parents at different stages of their children's education. Our findings also underscore that when parents hand down their profession as inventors to children their children, daughters are at a disadvantage if they have a brother.

Conclusions and takeaways

Our study helps explain who becomes an inventor and why, adding a valuable new layer to extant literature. Parents are intermediaries who interpret external information, and in doing so, they play a part in creating or limiting opportunities for their sons and - more importantly - for their daughters.

When parents pass down “inventorship” to their children, this process is shaped by parental gender expectations of what daughters and sons stand to gain from the profession. What’s more, this benefits daughters only when parental interpretations of external information are gender-neutral.

Our findings suggest that behaviors that create gendered career or job choices for boys and girls begin early; they may develop within the family; and they influence sons' and daughters' opportunities, even via pathways other than education. This means that encouraging women to pursue STEM degrees might help, but it may not be enough to eliminate the gender gap, nor can role-models alone bridge the gap. In fact, even though role models strongly influence educational choices, they are not as decisive in explaining why more boys than girls become inventors.

We should come up with additional actions that would start during childhood and target boys, girls, and parents. Raising awareness around stereotypical thinking and gender-related behaviors would be the first step. An effective tool for accomplishing this could be to circulate information about women who have succeeded in male-dominated professions, particularly in STEM-related careers.