Are Men More Inventive Than Women?

  “There are three classes of people: those who see, those who see when they are shown, those who do not see.” – Leonardo da Vinci



Thor May
Adelaide, 2015




Preface: This is a discussion paper, not a researched academic document. The reading list at the end is mostly a collection of contemporary links from the Internet and pretty accidental, not edited for quality. Where a topic is of broad general interest comes up with friends, I have adopted the practice of posting discussion starters like the present one on in the hope that others might also find them worth thinking about.






1. Introduction


The title of these notes is deliberately provocative. One purpose of the provocation is to incite discussion and reflection. Another purpose is to observe the kinds of responses which the question evokes. For example, it is instructive that those people I have broached the topic to have mostly not questioned the premise: that women have in fact been less inventive than men. Personally, I am genuinely curious about whether that is in fact true, what being inventive might mean, and why there might be gender differences in what, at bottom, has been our ability to innovate and hence survive as a species.

What is indisputable from even a casual survey is that the number of documented  inventions, ancient and modern, are overwhelmingly attributed to men.

It is also well documented that a significant number of inventions and scientific  breakthroughs rightly attributable to extraordinary women were recorded as coming from men (e.g. see Murphy & Tasneem 2013 in the reading list below). There are other instances where a woman, though recognized as an inventor, was dismissed and disparaged (e.g. think Lady Ada Lovelace, inventor of computer programming before there were computers). The gender denigration is, of course, quite predictable and in concordance with historical gender relations in most societies. The pity of this factor in the present question is that it muddies the investigation of whatever differences there might in fact be between men’s and women’s inventiveness. 


2. A personal starting place for the inquiry


Our untutored views on most issues, including this one, tend to come from lived experience rather than research. My own lived experience, if the disclosure is useful, is that I grew up hoping for a meeting of minds with women who might share my lifelong fascination with how things worked, and love of tinkering with both ideas and machines to see how they could be adapted.  Maybe it was an unlucky choice of companions, but such women proved hard to find.

The gulf between us became even more stark as I (we?) entered the age of computing.  I bought my first computer in 1981, a Tandy 100 laptop which could hold 15 pages of text, and began to experiment. From that time, pretty well until the new millennium, the attitude of most women I met towards computers was not one of curiosity and exploration. Rather, the attitudes ranged from complete indifference to outright hostility.  Computers were regarded as useless boy’s toys, and competitors, they felt, for the time and attention which should have been lavished on human relationships. 

Boys continued to tinker with computers. The hardware and software became sophisticated, then idiot proof as a direct result of the tinkering which blended with advanced research. By the time I was teaching female nursing students in Central China from 2007, they all had smart phones and raced off an average of 300 SMS text messages a month. Their interest in the phones was purely utilitarian. They remained utterly indifferent as to how the miracle worked, or had come about technically. Reflecting a little sadly on these gender differences, I wondered if it all emerged from socialization, or whether there was something more basic separating us. Clearly the world had known it’s Lady Ada Lovelaces, but whatever passion for material invention existed amongst most women, it seemed to be channelled in other directions.

Of course, the condition arising when curiosity leads to tinkering leads to invention is better understood as gradation on a scale rather than a simple on/off difference. Whatever the gender, relatively few people would really want to live a life which was extremely original or inventive, even if they could (except perhaps as a fashion pose in the mating game). They want to blend with peers. This is true regardless of status, income or intelligence.  I meet lots of very intelligent people who give very little indication of ever having had a seriously original idea in their lives. For example, universities are supposedly dedicated to exploring new ideas, new technologies, and hopefully new inventions. The usual specification for a Doctor of Philosophy degree (PhD) is that the award holder has made an original contribution to human knowledge. Take that with a grain of salt. There are indeed individuals (men and women) in most universities who are exemplars of such an ideal. They are few in number however, and often resented by shoals of diligent scribes, more fashionably called scholars (May 2002 and May 2011). This is the way of the world.

Although there is not a Leonardo da Vinci or a Benjamin Franklin on every street corner, men as a whole (at least in Australia) do generally like to muck around with things better than they like chattering.  In the mucking around, technical problems of various kinds are apt to crop up, and solutions might be jigged together.  The solutions might be one off events, or occasionally they might lead to a new product. My father’s Australian slang even had a word for being good at this kind of thing: “nousy”. A nousy bloke, who could adapt or invent his way out of any fix, was much admired in the culture. Thinking about this, and also the inventiveness of children, an insight from Eric Drexler (Drexler 1986 below) comes to mind: play is the engine of creation. That is a powerful idea. 


3. So what actually ARE inventions, and who makes them?


Henderson & Moore (2014) offer a very useful starting point for pinning down the idea of “invention”:

“…five ‘musts’ of true invention emerge: (a) novelty, (b) implementability, (c) utility, (d) cost-effectiveness, and (e) disruptive to existing technology.”

We have tended traditionally to think of inventions as physical devices. Obviously there is still an important place for physical devices, and new objects continue to appear. Some devices are partly physical, but only become meaningful in the context of non-physical phenomena. A tablet touch screen is not of much significance if the tablet does not contain software. In fact we have access to virtual electronic worlds of all kinds (e.g. the Internet) through physical hardware.

Computer programs themselves are symbolic systems which have required a great deal of invention. Often the invention of virtual systems can proceed at much greater speed than that of physical object, and sometimes far more cheaply. This is because the prototypes for these inventions can be modified in virtual environments without delay. Indeed, even physical objects can now often be modelled virtually. In 1879, Thomas Edison reputably went through 10,000 physical prototypes before finally getting the electric light bulb right. This took years. Today he would be able to alter a few variables in a computable model and experiment at great speed.


4. Who invents, mostly?


Inventions reflect the communities from which they emerge, and cultural roles within those communities. Travelling up through the bleak surrounds of the Khyber Pass (Afghanistan) in 1971, I was intrigued that villages hosted ingenious blacksmiths-cum-gunsmiths who could repair and innovate with great skill. It was unimaginable that any of those individuals would be women. Australian farmers have invented things they needed on farms, and it is likely that farmer’s wives did their share of that invention. The sprawling single house suburbs of an Australian city give rise to a quite different mix of lifestyle, leisure and occupational interests from, say, the concentrated 19 storey apartment blocks which house much of South Korea’s population. In South Korea you don’t have a shed down the back yard to muck around in and dream up a better mouse trap. On the other hand the South Koreans have some of the fastest internet connections in the world and a recent obsession with virtual gaming.

In fact, worldwide the new and voracious virtual empires of the Internet, smart phones, computers etc are swallowing vast chunks of our attention and time (see Cadwalladr 2015 in the reading list below for a scary insight into what is just around the corner). This gives rise to entirely new kinds of invention. Similarly, the multiplying varieties of paid employment and rising education levels all pose new issues waiting for solutions, some of them requiring novel invention.

In the past many, perhaps most, inventions were made by people with very little or no formal education. Some of these inventions were of impressive complexity. For example, take mobile refrigeration: “Frederick McKinley Jones (1892-1961) … was able to accomplish with only eight years of formal education. Without a high school or college education, Frederick McKinley Jones made it possible to transport perishable food over long distances”  (Henderson & Moore 2014). By comparison, today there are whole categories of invention needs which require a fairly sophisticated technical background (e.g. in medicine, sciences, high technology), and in many cases these breakthroughs occur when people are working in teams under R&D laboratory conditions. Of course, many lone inventors are still around, and some make a credible living at it.

The best R&D environments are a bit different from your typical day in the office:

The invention process is challenging, fraught with setbacks, but also deeply enjoyable and rewarding to the creator. For many invention teams, it turns out that humor, playfulness and fun is vital to the creative process (Henderson & Moore 2014).

Where official R&D teams are involved, patenting will be an automatic part of the process. In the case of individuals, patents may never be taken out unless there are clear prospects of commercialization because registering patents is a complex and expensive legal process. The absence of a patent is quite likely to mean that many inventions never become recorded in official statistics at all.


5. What special personal qualities or habits characterize inventors?


Perhaps the most salient quality of people who invent is their habit of questioning everything around them. Take a notebook one day, and record the questions you hear in ordinary conversation. I’ve done it. The list turns out to be rather dull, and the answers mostly very predictable. Try another step: look for popular questions asked in search engines like Google. Although there are vast numbers of queries made in Google, only a small percentage of them are unexpected or unusual. The record is mostly of incurious minds in search of predictable answers, and such stuff is not the grist of invention. As in the arts and science generally, the genius of inventors is in the offbeat questions they think to ask, and then in their persistence in tracking down solutions.

So can qualities of inventive questioning be taught? Some people think so. Stanford University runs a program called “The Virtual Crash Course in Design Thinking” (Stanford 2015). At least in America with its intense focus on commercialization, both invention and entrepreneurship are available in courses:

Sometimes one person will have the skills to be both an inventor and an entrepreneur. Far more often, however, an inventor will team up with an entrepreneur in a start up venture to bring a product, process, or idea to the market. A successful economy will have ample inventors who have access to entrepreneurs, with whom they can form productive partnerships. Many graduate business schools around the country now offer formal training in entrepreneurship. The same applies to graduate invention training. (Henderson & Moore 2014)

In addition to adult offerings, there are numerous American school and informal programs to foster inventiveness in children. The e-book by Henderson & Moore (2014) has already been referred to, and it lists a number of such examples. A quixotic mindset is seen as productive for invention, so there are also annual competitions for crazy contraptions (see Rube Goldberg references), and some websites such as cater to the inventive mind.

Inventors themselves sometimes describe actually “looking for trouble”, annoying situations and issues which ordinary folk would think of as daily tribulations (e.g. MacFarquhar, 1999). For inventors, these tribulations are neon signposts to inventive solutions waiting to happen, and thus to their future pay cheques.


6. Are women really less inventive than men?


In spite of my personal past experience outlined earlier, it seems that the potential for women to be inventors is probably not less than that for men, although the way their inventiveness is directed (taking women overall) might not entirely overlap with that of men. In societies where the roles of men and women are becoming less divergent we might expect the markers of inventiveness between genders to also become more similar. There is already strong evidence of this in the United States, although apparently less so in Europe and Australia :

In a … recent 2002 study of 247 people making a living by inventing, the inventors were older (19-74), more highly educated (68% of the respondents had graduate degrees), and potentially more experienced (averaging 14 years of inventing experience) [than in earlier studies]. In a larger European study of roughly 8,900 inventors, the average age and level of education of these inventors appeared commensurate with the smaller 2002 U.S. study. Back in the early 1890’ s, apparently all of Rossman’s respondents were European American men. Roughly a century later, among those who responded to the U.S. inventor survey, there was one women for every four men (23%) making a living by inventing, and one person of color for every five (20%) European-American inventors. In the studies on inventors in Canada, in Australia, and in Europe, the ratios of women to men were much less favourable. (Henderson & Moore 2014)

I am personally a bit dubious about surveys like the ones just quoted (both recent and early surveys). I don’t doubt the trend of women being recognized at inventors much more, nor the trend of greater recognition being accorded to inventors who don’t happen to be white males. What I do doubt is the capacity of surveys in general to capture what is going on in an activity as idiosyncratic as inventing. There can be so many different kinds of invention in so many possible environments that only a small corner of these activities is ever likely to be captured in official statistics.

Patents, the gold standard for official recognition, are themselves becoming more and more dubious indicators of original thinking. Patents are now weapons of war between large corporations, traded, hoarded and manipulated for profit and prestige. The Chinese government (PRC) now even sets quotas of patents to be granted or its research organizations, with predictable consequences of fraud and dilution. Thus in both industrial and governmental environments, patents (in common with all other licences to print money) are easily tainted by corruption or trivialization.

What we can usefully study is whether men, women and children have habits of thinking curiously and inventively in daily life. Do we question more actively and more ingeniously than our ancestors? In questioning do we have the confidence, the skills and the persistence to seek novel solutions in environments that are ever more complex? Are our cultures genuinely open to invention, or is the corporate conformity of manufactured consent wrapping us in cacoons of self-delusion?  





Reading List*  (other suggestions welcome)

* caution: the inclusion of links here does not mean that this writer either endorses or discounts what particular articles propose.

Australian Government (2015) “Australian Inventions”. About Australia webpage online @


Bellis, Mary (2015) “How Many Women Inventors Are There?” website online @

Berry, Sarah (October 7, 2015) "Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert encourages the audacity to dream". Brisbane Times online @  


Biggs,  Ralph (December 12, 2014) “Ralph Baer: the man you never heard of who changed technology forever”.  Brisbane Times online @


Cadwalladr, Carole (4 October 2015)"Is the dotcom bubble about to burst (again)? In Silicon Valley, millions of dollars change hands every day as investors hunt the next big thing – the ‘unicorn’, or billion-dollar tech firm. There are now almost 150, but can they all succeed?". [Scary article. Please read] The Guardian online @


Childs, Martin (Tuesday 27 January 2015) “Ena Baxter: Cook and businesswoman whose inventiveness and energy helped make Baxters soups a global brand”.  The Independent (UK), online @


Chindogu (n.d.) A website for functional but useless inventions, reflecting one aspect of Japanese humour. Chindogu website online @


Cognitive Sciences Stack Exchange (2012) “Why have historically most inventors been men?”  Cognitive Sciences Stack Exchange website online @

Drexler, K. Eric (1986) Engines of Creation - The Coming Era of Nanotechnology. Anchor Books. Full text now online @

Erbentraut, Joseph (09/11/2015) “Doctor In Gaza Invents 3D-Printable, Cost-Effective Stethoscope.  The goal is self-sufficiency for Palestinian hospitals facing a supply shortage.” Huffington Post online @


Frey, Thomas (2008 ) “A Study of Women Inventors”. Futurist Speaker website, online @


Goldberg, Rube (2015) Rube Goldberg Gallery online @

Halfbakery (n.d) “The Halfbakery is a communal database of original, fictitious inventions, edited by its users”. [Recommended]. Halfbakery website online @


Harris, Dan (August 27th, 2012) “Innovation In China. Not Seeing It….”. China Law Blog online @


Hart, Jarrrod (February 15, 2013) “Leveraging the Inventiveness in your Mind”. The Provincial Scientist blog, online @


Hart, Jarrrod (February 15, 2013) “Requirements for Promoting a New Scientific Theory”. The Provincial Scientist blog, online @


Henderson,  Sheila J. (Author), Rosemarie K. Moore (January 13, 2014) Fostering Inventiveness in Children . [Recommended]  Available as a Kindle e-book (US$4.36) or in print. Online at Amazon:


Leafloor , Liz ( September 19, 2015 ) “ 1,200-Year-Old Telephone, Amazing Invention of the Ancient Chimu Civilization ”. Epoch Times online @


MacIsaac, Tara ( September 25, 2014 ) “ 3 Crazy Ancient Inventions: You’ll Be Surprised What the First Vending Machine Gave Out ”. Epoch Times online @


MacIsaac , Tara ( November 5, 2013 ) “ 3 ‘Modern’ Inventions That Existed Millions of Years Ago: Nuclear Reactor, Telescope, Clothes ”. [inclusion of this link does not imply any acceptance of what the article proposes. I’m agnostic about this kind of thing, especially from a source like the Epoch Times] Epoch Times online @


Martina, Michael (Aug 21, 2012) “China's patent targets mask weak innovation: study. Reuters newsagency online @


May, Thor (1987) “Superculture and the Ghost in the Machine”. online @ or  

May, Thor (1987) “ The Outside Track on Happiness”. Thor’s China Diary, online @

May, Thor (2000) “ The Conundrum of Men and Women: Innovators & Imitators”. The Passionate Skeptic website, online @

May, Thor (2002) “Gender Puzzle”. The Passionate Skeptic website, online @

May, Thor (2002) “Pissing on Every Lamp Post: The Paradox of Scholarship”. online @

May, Thor (2011) “Why Write a PhD?” online @  or  

MacFarquhar, L. (1999, December 6). “Looking for trouble: How an inventor gets his best ideas”. The New Yorker, 78-93

Moussa, Farag (1994) " Statistics on women inventors: A worldwide view”. International Federation of Inventors' Associations (IFIA) website, online @

Solon, Olivia (29 July 13) Heath Robinson: the unsung hero of British eccentricity and innovation”. Salon magazine, online @ 


Stanford University (2015) “Welcome to the Virtual Crash Course in Design Thinking”. [online videos. Minimum of 1 partner needed to participate. Free] Stanford School of Design, online @


UmassAmherst  (2015) “New Company Perfects the Science of Inventiveness”. UmassAmherst College of Engineering, website online @


US Department of Commerce (1999) “Buttons to Biotech: U.S. Patenting By Women, 1977 to 1996, with supplemental data through 1998”. Patent Office, US Department of Commerce, report online @


Wikipedia (2015) “Hildegard of Bingen”. Wikipedia online @


Wikipedia (2015) “Rube Goldberg”. [a genius American cartoon creator of improbable machines]. Wikipedia online @


Wikipedia (2015) “W. Heath Robinson”. [a genius English cartoon creator of improbable machines]. Wikipedia online @


Zhang, Yuyue (9 August 2013) “Inventiveness and Non-obviousness: Insights into Prosecution Practice in China and the United States”. Lungin Intellectual Property Agents Ltd website @




Professional bio: Thor May has a core professional interest in cognitive linguistics, at which he has rarely succeeded in making a living. He has also, perhaps fatally in a career sense, cultivated an interest in how things work – people, brains, systems, countries, machines, whatever In the world of daily employment he has mostly taught English as a foreign language, a stimulating activity though rarely regarded as a profession by the world at large. His PhD dissertation, Language Tangle, dealt with language teaching productivity. Thor has been teaching English to non-native speakers, training teachers and lecturing linguistics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven countries in Oceania and East Asia, mostly with tertiary students, but with a couple of detours to teach secondary students and young children. He has trained teachers in Australia, Fiji and South Korea. In an earlier life, prior to becoming a teacher, he had a decade of finding his way out of working class origins, through unskilled jobs in Australia, New Zealand and finally England (after backpacking across Asia to England in 1972).

Are Men More Inventive Than Women? ©Thor May September 2015





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