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Parents Pass Inventorship Skills On To Daughters – Unless They Have A Younger Son

Boy and girl sit on the floor building a tower from wooden blocks
If one of your parents is an inventor, you can inherit inventorship skills… As long as you don’t have a younger brother
  • The presence of a younger brother limits the benefits associated with parental inventorship for an older sister
  • Parents form expectations of their child’s chances of success as an inventor
  • They allocate time and resources to their children differently based on gender

We can inherit many things from our parents: eye colour, hair colour, height. Some might even say you take after one of your parents when it comes to personality or preferences.

But did you know, that if one of your parents is an inventor, you can inherit that too? Perhaps not in the genetic sense, but according to new research, parental “inventorship” skills appear to be passed on to their children.

Karin Hoisl, holder of the Chair of Organisation and Innovation at the University of Mannheim Business School, alongside colleagues Hans Christian Kongsted from Copenhagen Business School and Myriam Mariani from Bocconi University, investigated the role of parental inventorship, on the inventor capabilities in their children. They used data from almost 1.2million Danish children born between 1966 and 1985.

In the study, they established whether one, both, or neither parent of the children were inventors, and whether the children themselves were inventors. They identified inventors as individuals listed on at least one European patent application.

The researchers found that having parents who were inventors increased the probability of first-born daughters also becoming inventors, but only if they did not have a second-born brother.

The presence of a younger brother was found to limit the extent to which an older sister benefitted from parental knowledge and skills, the discussion of career plans, access to parental networks, and the transmission of enthusiasm for creativity and innovativeness.

In addition to this, first-born sons were also found to inherit inventorship from parents, but were not negatively impacted by the presence of a subsequent sibling in the same way a first-born daughter was.

The researchers say these findings demonstrate that gender plays a strong role in how parental inventorship is transmitted to children. To further affirm this finding, the transmission of inventorship to a first-born daughter was revealed to be unaffected by a second-born sister, suggesting that this crowding-out effect for daughters is not simply due to sharing resources among more children.

But why does this happen? The researchers suggest that parents are intermediaries who, based on their own interpretations of inventive jobs, form gendered expectations of their daughters’ and sons’ chances of success in becoming an inventor. These expectations lead parents to allocate their time and resources to their children differently, creating or limiting opportunities for their children based on gender as a result.

Perhaps they do subconsciously assume their son will be more successful as an inventor, so put more resources into exposing him to information that will benefit him on that path. After all, only 15% of inventors from their sample were women.

Prof. Hoisl says, “We show that behaviours that create gendered careers or professional activities start in early childhood. Thus, pushing women into STEM graduate degrees can help, but it might not be enough to eliminate the gender gap in inventorship.”

And what impact does this have on the demographics of inventors?

Well, according to the UK’s Intellectual Property Office, as of 2019, less than 13% of patent applications globally were filed by female inventors. If we apply the findings of this research, perhaps we can assume that many of these female inventors had no siblings, or at least no younger brothers.

From this research, it appears the behaviours that create gendered career or professional activities’ choices for children begin early, develop within the family, and influence children’s opportunities through routes other than education. Therefore, pushing women into STEM graduate degrees could help, but it might not be enough to eliminate the gender gap in inventorship. Role models alone cannot close the gap for new generations either: they can strongly influence educational choices, but not the transmission of parental inventorship.

If we look back to Hoisl, Kongsted and Mariani’s study, to decrease the gender gap in inventorship, we should instead act during childhood and target both children and parents. Making people aware of stereotypical thinking and gendered behaviours that can limit children’s opportunities is an important first step.

An effective tool to create awareness can involve sharing information about successful women in male-dominated jobs; STEM-related jobs in particular. Reports on women’s careers in science and technology, examples of successful female researchers, and the role of the environment in shaping decisions can all be useful. These types of actions early on might also help to boost more women into leadership roles later down the line too.

Because parents develop their interpretations based on external information they interpret, interventions should also be directed to change the context that generated this information. We might have heard of Marie Curie: the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, as well as the first person and only woman to win the Nobel Prize twice. But for every Marie Curie, there seems to be a dozen Thomas Edisons, Alexander Graham Bells, Nikola Teslas, Steve Jobs, and Elon Musks.

Therefore, any action that increases the number of women in science and technology and improves their treatment and visibility would help with this. If girls want to be creative, we need to celebrate this, and educate both them and their parents on the inventive and creative women that have come before them.

If the next potential Marie Curie is out there, we don’t want to miss out on whatever amazing discovery or invention she makes just because she has a younger brother.  

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