(Shirley Li/Medill)

WASHINGTON – After creating Cleencups, an antibacterial disposable drinking cup, full-time inventor Yvette Kendall was invited to participate in a show the Discovery Channel is developing on women inventors.

When Kendall arrived on set, she was shocked to see the number of women inventors gathered.

“It was a couple thousand women, and it was just so exciting to see the things that we as females have together,” Kendall said. “I didn’t know until I did recent research that women were not really a part of the invention field.”

Yet, women have indeed become a larger part of the invention field, as more women inventors like Kendall are populating the market with their products. A report recently released from the National Women’s Business Council detailed a significant increase in the number of women obtaining patents and trademarks in recent years.

In fact, in 2010, the number of women getting patents jumped 35 percent from the previous year, with 22,984 granted. Within a three-decade span, the number of trademarks granted to women nearly doubled: In 2010, women earned 33 percent of all trademarks, while in 1980, they only attained 17 percent.

Behind the numbers

The report was commissioned by the 15-member NWBC, an advisory council to the federal government regarding women in business. It reviewed the patents granted between 1975 and 2010, as well as trademarks filed and granted from 1980 and 2010. Using data from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, researchers compiled the names of patentees and matched the names according to gender.

As women continue to gain a larger presence in the field, business council Chairwoman Donna James said, up to this point, “little research has specifically examined women business owners and intellectual property.”

“Patent and trademark ownership often is an indicator of entrepreneurial activity – historically, women have not been a large segment of this activity,” she said. “A bump in IP ownership could indicate strong growth in women-owned companies.”

Although the study did not examine the reasons behind the surge in women inventors, business council Research and Policy Director Julia Kurnik said several factors could have caused the increase in numbers, including higher level of education – patents and trademarks have increased in correlation with the number of female graduates from college. But none of the explanations for the surge in women inventors are seen as conclusive yet, she said.

“We don’t want to count on [the results] too much since it is just one year so far, so what we’d really love to see is if that  rate of increase continues, if those numbers continue to hold up,” said Kurnik. “We hope it does, we’re very excited but it’s possible there are other factors.”

The “In-Crowd” 

Although the report could not determine why the surge in women inventors occurred, one of the factors may be the changing role of women over the past three decades, according to inventor Julie Pilas. Over the years, women have also taken on the role as breadwinners, and “are up there with the husbands supporting their households and families,” she said.

Yet, despite the advances of women inventors revealed by the NWBC report, the field remains male-dominated, as women obtain only 18 percent of all patents.

Because of this, Kurnik said the women’s business council plans to conduct a qualitative study examining the gender roles behind the numbers in its published report. To be completed and published in June, the qualitative study will focus primarily on why there is still a dramatic imbalance between the number of women obtaining patents than the number of men doing the same.

“We’d like to understand what those barriers are,” she said. “We’re open to those being perceived barriers or actual barriers, so hopefully the number of women getting patents can increase.”

Pilas said she encountered the gender barrier when she invented the Catch-It Waste Collector, a device that catches dogs’ waste without having walkers touch it.

After years of perfecting the artwork and fixing her designs, she was awarded a patent, but she said that although she had her idea formed from the start, her biggest challenge was proving herself to the companies and male colleagues.

“I wasn’t part of the in-crowd,” she said. “The feeling that I got, was while they thought the Catch-It was great, they didn’t think I had the ability to get it out there. I think a woman has to prove herself a lot more before a man will take her seriously. That’s what I came across…They would automatically think, ‘what does this one know?’”

Changing landscape

The future remains uncertain for women inventors because of the competition they face as they explore a relatively new field.

“Women have to be a lot more innovative and wear more hats,” Yvette Kendall said, explaining that women face an uphill battle and must churn out more products to stay in the invention business. “We are like talented human octopuses and we have to have our hands on more things.”

Pilas and Kendall have started their own companies – Pilas Enterprises and Shevinci Enterprises, respectively – to keep a better hold on intellectual property, which both say are essential to continuing product development. But in the end, Pilas said, the sense of accomplishment from creating a new product motivates her more than the business side of inventing, even in the face of tough and continuing challenges.

“I’m extremely proud of what I’ve accomplished and I can’t wait until it’s actually out there,” Pilas said. “Making money is secondary, the thrill of seeing somebody using your product and saying how great it is – that’s a greater thrill than anything else.”