Designing Women: Consumer Goods Innovations in Britain, France and the United States, 1750-1900

B. Zorina Khan

NBER Working Paper No. 23086
Issued in January 2017
NBER Program(s):Development of the American Economy, Productivity, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship

Economic studies typically underestimate incremental changes in consumer goods and design innovations that enhance allocative efficiency and structural dynamics. This paper assesses over 12,000 innovations by female patentees and participants in industrial fairs and prize-granting institutions in Britain, France and the United States, compared to parallel samples of some 60,000 patented and unpatented innovations by men. These data uniquely allow for the systematic assessment of women’s creativity within the nonmarket household sector and outside the patent system. The analysis distinguishes between improvements in consumer final goods, changes in designs, and other forms of technological creativity. The results indicate that women, especially nonpatentees, were significantly more likely than men to be associated with innovations in consumer final goods and design-oriented products at the boundary of art and technology. Even those who did not commercialize their products or work outside the home pursued such improvements to benefit their families. The patterns suggest that framing women’s creativity in terms of a “gender difference” rather than a “gender gap” might yield useful analytical insights. A general implication is that, by inaccurately gauging consumer innovations within the household and in the market, economic research likely underestimates the extent of technological progress and advances in welfare.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w23086

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