Women inventors, long overlooked, are churning out more patents than ever

Updated 8:47 AM ET, Tue March 26, 2019

(CNN)If you've used Wi-Fi, windshield wipers or a dishwasher -- and who hasn't? -- you have a woman to thank.

Male inventors such as Henry Ford, Nikola Tesla and Alexander Graham Bell get all the press. But this Women's History Month, it's important to note that women have been the masterminds behind some invaluable creations, too.
Take Radia Perlman. She holds more than 100 US patents and paved the way for the development of the internet. Or Beulah Louise Henry, known as "Lady Edison" after she obtained 49 patents for her inventions, including an ice cream freezer. Or Carolyn Bertozzi, named on 50 US patents, who invented her own field of study: bio-orthogonal chemistry. The list goes on.
In recent years, women have been churning out more inventions than ever, says the US Patent and Trademark Office.
But women are still seriously outnumbered by men when it comes to obtaining patents. The disparity is so severe that one recent study found -- based on current growth -- that it will take 118 years before the US reaches gender parity among inventors.
Mary Anderson with her schematics for an early version of the windshield wiper, patented in 1903. She got the idea when she toured New York in a trolley car on a snowy day and noticed the driver often had to open his windows to see out.
Women are gradually making inroads into this male-dominated fraternity.
In 1976, the number of patents that included a woman as an inventor was less than 4%.
By 2016, that figure had jumped to 21%, the US Patent and Trademark Office said in a report released in February.
However, women inventors made up only 12% of all inventors on patents granted in 2016 -- the most recent year for which data is available -- according to the patent office.
That disparity is not a good sign and even hurts the country's economy, says John Van Reenan, who co-authored the 2017 study about inventors.
"You can grow to some degree by copying other people, but what really moves the dial is when you can come out with great new ideas and innovation and new technology," he says.
Josephine Garis Cochran patented the dishwasher in 1886. She designed a set of wire compartments to fit plates, cups, or saucers, spinning on a wheel inside a copper boiler with hot, soapy water.
The 2017 study deemed women as "lost Einsteins" -- people who could have created high-impact inventions if they had received early exposure to innovation and inventor role models.
"There are a lot of really talented girls who could've been inventors. We're losing out on a generation of Marie Curies," says Van Reenan.
The gender gap has nothing to do with girls' abilities. Instead, it's in part due to messages and societal expectations girls pick up on at a young age.
Researchers examined math test scores of third graders and found that boys and girls obtained similar scores.
"When they're young, there's basically no difference -- girls are doing just as well as boys," Van Reenan says. But "over time, that gap becomes bigger, presumably due to how they're taught and stereotypes."
Actress Hedy Lamarr helped invent a frequency-hopping system to help the Allies communicate in World War II. It was never actually used during the war, but its principles led to the development of Bluetooth, GPS and Wi-Fi.