Inventions usually come out of attempts to solve problems. Because people with different life experiences are motivated to solve different problems in different ways, it is eminently worth striving for a more inclusive patent system. In other words, female inventors are more likely to patent solutions to problems that specifically or disproportionately affect women. This is not a premonition; it is the conclusion reached by a team of researchers who studied biomedical patents issued from 1976 to 2010.
Since Director Kathi Vidal headed the United States Patent & Trademark Office this spring, she has made increasing participation in the innovation ecosystem a key area of focus. Recent initiatives include paid internships for undergraduate students, an accelerated program for inventors filing their first patent applications, and expanding programs that provide free legal services to under-resourced inventors. She made her debut last week, in collaboration with Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo WEa new initiative aimed specifically at women.
With the same spirit of inclusiveness in mind, the USPTO started asking for feedback of the public on whether it should expand the criteria for regularly drafting, filing and negotiating patent applications. Currently, the requirements to become a patent attorney or patent attorney in the United States include majoring in a list of degrees related to science and technology weighted towards engineering. (This is regardless of whether the practitioner wants to focus on utility patents, which protect how an invention works, or design patents, which protect how an invention looks.)
In her 2o20 law magazine article, “The gender gap of the patent barformer patent attorney Mary Hannon makes a compelling case for why expanding the list of eligible degrees to include STEM-adjacent fields would diversify participation in the patent system without compromising patent quality. While women earn about half of all STEM undergraduate degrees, Hannon points out, the requirements to pass the patent bar favor degrees and courses in physics, chemistry and engineering, in which women are statistically less likely to participate. (Women are most active in the life sciences, which include the study of plants, animals and humans.)
There’s no need to wring your hand over the deterioration of standards: patents issued in countries with much less stringent requirements to aid inventors, including Canada and Japan, have been found to be of comparable quality.
As a student, Wen Xie studied to become a doctor. Today, she is a patent attorney at Global IP Counselors, working primarily on mechanical, electrical, and software inventions and hosts a series of practice vlogs on IPWatchdog. In a phone interview, she emphasized the role mentorship played in preparing her to feel confident in her abilities. It is possible to learn on the job, she says, but not without sustainable mentorship. One of the hardest things to learn is deciphering patent drawings, she added, which is likely why engineering degrees — which require students to learn engineering drawings — are preferred.
“Drawings are an important part of patent practice,” Xie told me in a telephone interview. “If you can interpret the drawings efficiently, your work is halved.”
There is some evidence that increasing the number of women who can pursue careers in patent litigation – the term used to describe the process of drafting a patent application and negotiating with a patent examiner to obtain it – will also result in more female inventors.
While women make up a greater percentage of new inventors in the United States than ever before, a gender gap in the patent system remains. Statistically, intellectual property is a boys’ club. Most patent attorneys are white males, as are most inventors with patents. To understand who becomes an inventor in America, Harvard researchers revealed extreme differences in their 2018 bombshell report on “Lost Einsteins.” Exposure to innovation is a key factor in determining who ultimately patents their inventions, they conclude.
This makes perfect sense as there is no well established path to becoming a successful inventor. On the contrary, the odds are against independent inventors who want to commercialize their ideas. Turning an idea into a new product or service, let alone a profitable one, typically requires at least some access to capital, extensive training, the freedom and support to fail repeatedly, and determination . If there are no examples in your local area to be inspired by, you’re less likely to think about it.
Recent USPTO studies on women’s participation in the patent system confirm the importance of exposure to innovation. For example, a new report analyzing where women patented at the county level over three decades shows that “growth in the number of female inventor-patents was strong in counties where women patented as far back as the early 1990s”.
Similarly, the USPTO’s 2019 Progress and Potential Report revealed that female inventors are increasingly focusing on specific areas of technology and types of organizations, rather than spreading across many areas. Instead of venturing into male-dominated fields or businesses, such as engineering, women are innovating where their female predecessors have already patented.
The quality of a patent is partly determined by the extent to which the person who prepares, submits and negotiates the application understands what makes the invention unique and important. It is therefore understandable that inventors want to work with a representative who fully understands and respects the meaning of their invention.
Consider the experience of entrepreneur Sara Blakely, whose invention and commercialization of Spanx in the early 2000s led to her becoming the youngest self-made female billionaire. In telling about her patent journey before a live audience, she explained matter-of-factly:
“Well, of course I wanted a woman, I thought it would be much easier to explain my idea, and I couldn’t find one. So I called the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, and I asked for a recommendation of a female patent attorney, and the Chamber of Commerce basically said there isn’t a single female patent attorney in the entire state of Georgia right now.”
Blakely eventually filed her first patent application pro so— meaning on her own — after hesitating against the price, she was quoted by several lawyers. It was issued after just over a year of persecution.
“We know that in the United States, even a modest increase in the number of women in the workforce could add more than $500 billion to GDP over the next decade. Quadrupling the number of inventors could add $1 trillion. That is why we are engaging a government-wide approach to bring more women and more Americans from traditionally underserved and underserved communities into the innovation ecosystem,” said USPTO Director Vidal. “This includes not only expanding the ability to practice for the USPTO, but also ensuring that all Americans have access to affordable innovation resources, legal advice, and the capital and support needed to turn an idea into reality in jobs and solutions. We’ve just started.”
Across the innovation ecosystem, from technology companies to intellectual property companies to law schools and government, there is a tidal wave of energy to break down the barriers that prevent members of underrepresented groups from fully contributing their creativity. The stakes are high. To develop products and services that truly reflect the needs of all people, inventors of different genders, ethnicities, socio-economic backgrounds, education and ways of learning must be nurtured and ultimately empowered to act.