In the race for global technology leadership, China understands that it needs more inventors to compete with the United States and has worked systematically to expand its capacity to innovate. That’s why China is eating America’s lunch on a critical measure of technological capacity: women inventors.
A new World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) study of international patent applications found that from 2001 to 2005 and 2016 to 2020, China grew its capacity of women inventors at almost double the rate of the U.S.–42% in China compared to 22% in the U.S. To continue outpacing China in cutting-edge technologies so, as President Biden vowed in his State of the Union, “they’re not used against us,” the United States must access all available talent by changing the culture around invention and expanding its pipeline of inventors.
Our elected officials already know the risks of letting other countries out-innovate us. In a rare and powerful show of bipartisanship, Congress passed the CHIPS and Science Act last summer to bolster U.S. innovation in next-generation technologies such as artificial intelligence, clean energy, 5G, and other advanced technologies to make sure American innovators can keep up with China by not only maintaining American leadership in these areas but also by inventing the next breakthrough technologies.
The WIPO study shows that the U.S. lags behind China and much of the world in our efforts to fully mobilize our inventive talent. From 2016 through 2020, the U.S. ranked just 13th–well below the global average–based on the share of patents that includes women. China ranked fourth, behind Colombia, Spain, and Egypt.
Globally, the WIPO report found that only one in eight inventors listed on a patent was a woman, and only 4% of international patents covered inventions by women-only inventors or teams. These figures portray not only a massive global underutilization of talent but also sustained gender bias in innovative fields worldwide.
According to the WIPO study, global patent filings could potentially reach gender parity in about four decades. That already disappointing pace could be slowed even more by crises like the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced more women scientists than men out of the lab to care for their families.
Inventing plays a central role in economic growth and job creation. The strength of a country’s patent protections is a strong predictor of its commitment to the rule of law and its ability to provide incentives to innovate. In the U.S., where patent rights are enshrined in the Constitution, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has estimated that intellectual property-intensive industries account for more than 40% of U.S. economic activity and support 63 million jobs–44% of the U.S. workforce.
A dearth of U.S. women among named patent inventors can be remedied. In his first two years in office, President Biden drove a resurgence of “Made in America.” Now we must ensure that everyone has the opportunity to “Invent in America.” New laws, policies, and private sector practices can expand access to education, mentorship, and careers in science and technology: for example, by increasing access and funding for research and legal assistance for patenting inventions, improving the availability of child care and family and medical leave, and making sure that university and private sector workplaces are welcoming for all.
The need for change is as much about economic and technological competitiveness as it is about equality and righting historical wrongs. A series of studies has shown the more diverse a team of inventors, the more creative and innovative their output.
The USPTO Office of the Chief Economist issued a report last October, calling the persistent underrepresentation of women in patenting a “drag on American innovation and prosperity,” and citing projections for significantly increased economic output if women were to patent at the same rate as men. “Gender diversity boosts the inventive process in essential ways: women’s experiences and viewpoints help inform, and thus improve, the quantity and quality of innovation,” the report noted.
Government, educational institutions, and the private sector must promote broad participation in invention and patenting to make sure that women, people of color, and other historically underrepresented groups have the opportunity to contribute fully to the innovation economy.
The global innovation race is on–and the stakes are higher than ever. America can continue to lead–but only if we harness the power of all of our talent to maximize our inventive potential.
Holly Fechner is the executive director of Invent Together, an alliance of universities, nonprofits, companies, and other stakeholders committed to ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to invent
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