Daughters of Invention
BY RACHELLE SENDER BEAUCHAMP
" Being an inventor you don't have to be a genius, but just have a little imagination and determination."
"The simple ideas turn out to be the best successes." .
"You can start with nothing and end up with something."
"I didn't know before how creative I was."
Inventing is fun! That sums up the reactions of the young women who have attended workshops based on the Daughters of Invention format developed by the Women Inventors Project.
Throughout history, women have been important inventors. But they have frequently been anonymous: credit for the cotton gin, a machine that revolutionized the economy of the U.S. South, has gone to Eli Whitney even though the device was first imagined by his landlady, Catherine L. Greene. Ellen Eglui invented a clothes wringer in 1888 but sold her patent cheaply to a man (who subsequently made a great deal of money from it) because, she said, "if it was known that a Negro woman patented the invention, white ladies would not buy the wringer" (1).
Today in Canada, women inventors still fight an uphill battle. According to the Patent Office, only about 1 % of Canadian patents issued to Canadians go to women. This is a small piece of a small pie, representing only about ten patents annually. It makes even the number of women engineers look huge by comparison. Organizations mandated to encourage innovation in Canada, such as the Canadian Industrial Innovation Centre, have largely ignored women entirely, as clients or as technical staff.
For the past four years, the Women Inventors Project, a unique, non-profit, organization, has worked with Canadian women of all ages to improve this dismal situation (2). The workshops and talks we have developed for young women have been particularly exciting because we feel that, in the long run, encouraging young women to opt for science and engineering will increase the number of women inventors in Canada. Indeed, a recent report from the U.S. Patent Office (3) suggests that the proportion of women receiving U.S. patents closely follows the proportion of women engineers in the work force. (Both are now at 5%, higher than the 1% figure for Canada.)
Role models for women inventors are in short supply. Even recent books on inventors aimed at elementary and secondary students show few, if any women inventors (4). A poster entitled "Canadian Scientists and Inventors," which greeted me on a recent visit to my daughter's grade seven classroom, has not a single female face.