The Iconic American Inventor Is Still a White Male – and That’s an Obstacle to Race and Gender Inclusion
Anjali Vats, The Conversation, December 8, 2020
When President Barack Obama signed the America Invents Act in 2011, he was surrounded by a group of people of diverse ages, genders and races. The speech he delivered about the legislation, which changed the technical requirements for filing a patent, highlighted this diversity by emphasizing that today anyone can become an inventor in the United States.
Despite Obama’s optimism about women and people of color inventing and patenting the nation’s new and innovative technologies, both groups still lag considerably behind their white male counterparts in being recognized as inventors and owning patents, in the U.S. and globally. Women and people of color possess the same intellectual capacities as their white male counterparts. Yet empirical studies consistently show that patent law overwhelmingly rewards white men for their labor and skill.
This is in part because women and people of color join science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields in much lower numbers than white men. In 2017, women made up over half of the workforce, but held only 29% of STEM jobs. But even women and people of color who go into STEM fields invent and patent far less often than their white male counterparts.
The question is why.
As a researcher who studies race, rhetoric and intellectual property law, I can say that the U.S.‘s race and gender invention and patent gap results partly from a failure of imagination. The stories that people tell about invention in the U.S. continue to focus on white men – the Benjamin Franklins, Thomas Edisons and Elon Musks – without affording women and people of color the same larger-than-life status.
National myths about inventorship and political barriers to patenting set up women and people of color for failure by normalizing entrenched discrimination even when they join STEM fields.
Black and brown people are no longer legally prohibited from owning patents and copyrights, as they were in the 1700s and 1800s. However, seemingly colorblind patent and copyright laws continue to practically favor white male inventors and creators by using legal definitions and tests that protect inventions and creations that tend to match Western conceptions and expectations of, for instance, expertise and creativity.
From the now cliché “think outside the box” to Apple’s slogan “think different,” innovation, a central component of invention, is associated with breaking limits. Yet Americans have largely failed to change the ways that they think and talk about invention itself.
Even Obama’s speech about the America Invents Act begins by explaining how Thomas Jefferson epitomized the nation’s mythic spirit of invention and innovation. Yet Jefferson held the racist view that Black people lacked the capacity to be truly imaginative creators, let alone citizens of the nation. Breaking limits, it turns out, is most often a privilege afforded to white people.
The current historical moment, in which facts are negotiable, white nationalism is on the rise and the nation is weathering a pandemic, is an important time to redefine American mythologies of invention. Celebrating the inventive capacity of women and people of color matters. Recognizing their innovative genius, in films like “Hidden Figures,” helps transform what had been marginalized stories into narratives that are central to history.