Mothers of Invention? Gender, Motherhood, and New Dimensions of Productivity in the Science Profession

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At the heart of this research is the goal of gaining a better understanding of how work environments and changes in the context of the profession of science may influence the known sex disparities between scientists. The study findings reinforce the notion that the structure of science remains a gendered structure, wherein the formal and informal advantages and disad- vantages in the profession run along gender lines. And as the job activities of academic and industrial science increasingly overlap, it becomes relevant to consider both sectors when studying sex disparities among science profes- sionals. As commercialization becomes more common, these trends have considerable implications not only for science as a profession, but the wider pursuit of knowledge as well. 

Gender and motherhood dynamics feature prominently in research that examines professional workplace inequities.The rise of patenting as an avail- able form of academic productivity presents a fruitful site to revisit these in the science profession and to compare academic and industrial science contexts. I predict patenting involvement across disciplines, sectors, and time. Contrary to findings regarding publishing, academic mothers suffer a moth- erhood penalty not experienced by childless women or mothers in industry. Controls for past involvement remove the disparity, and a sex gap in indus- try. Work/family balance, sector-level incentives, and status expectations may explain these results, providing implications for future research on gender, motherhood, and work. The focus of the research is on sex and motherhood disparities in patenting across academic and industrial domains. The rise of patenting activity in the academy over the past three decades reflects broad changes in the science profession more gen- erally, as the logic of science and the logic of commerce increasingly overlap in the scientific work conducted in academia and industry. Aided by federal and state promotion as well as university infrastructure, academic scientists have become increasingly involved in a variety of commercial activities, including patenting, licensing, start-up incubation and firm founding, especially in the life sciences.  

A focus on patenting allows for an examination of the ways in which men and women workers, especially parents, negotiate new dimensions of pro- ductivity amidst the existing demands of their professional work. Inventing is a largely “optional” activity for academics but can carry extensive monetary and reputational benefits for inventors. Yet patenting requires available time and resources and can hinge on the development of commercial relationships and invitations to participate. Although previous work on science professions suggests little differences in productivity exist between female parents and others, mothers’ status may complicate opportunities to conduct research in new directions like commercial behavior.

I also address whether or not familiarity, or previous involvement with the patenting process, reduces sex or motherhood disparities. The influence of past exposure in predicting future involvement is not known and can reveal the extent to which particular types of constraints on academic scientists, such as time demands or existing commercial knowledge, may be important in producing observed sex disparities. This issue is particularly relevant for women scientists; at least in the academy, research has shown women to have less knowledge about inventing than their male counterparts.

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