Does the Patent Gender Gap Matter?

Businesswoman working on laptopThe patent gender gap is closing, but it will take until 2092 for women to reach parity with men in terms of patenting in the United States at the current rate. But what difference does that make? In other words, is the patent gender gap something that should be a concern and, therefore, a problem that should be solved?

What follows below is the finale of my interview with Jessica Milli, Jennifer Gottwald and Jane Muir. Part 1 of our interview published earlier this week at: The Patent Gender Gap Goes Beyond Fewer Women in Math and Sciences. In this final segment, which appears below, we discuss ways to address the patent gender gap and whether (and why) it even matters.

QUINN: You know I want to explore a little bit more about this perfectionist idea that has come up here as well with respect to the stereotyping. My son’s girlfriend is an engineering student and she is on a full scholarship and extraordinarily smart, a high achiever and I think you would call her a perfectionist. She is the type that is going to study to get an A and I think during her college career she’s only gotten less than an A in one class, which seemed like a traumatic experience for her. This type of perfectionist personality type seems extremely well suited for lab work, right? I mean the more particular you are, the cleaner your experiments are going to be and that’s a scientific mind frame, really. But you also can’t have it be so overwhelming that it leads you to drop out. I know there’s not an easy solution but are there skill sets that we can interject into curriculum, not just aiming at women, but that would help everybody learn how to deal with that?

MUIR: Well, keep in mind that some of the vast discoveries have been through accidents, not through perfectionism.

QUINN: That’s true. Penicillin and the microwave oven are two that come to mind that were accidents. What I meant was the precision one needs in a lab, whether performing experiments or taking notes and keeping track of what you’ve done and learned, is something that certainly requires attention to detail.

GOTTWALD: I think the answer to your question goes a lot to role models. If you look at some of the things that we can do to make a difference, certainly publicizing role models that are making a difference, whether they have straight “As” or they have straight “Bs” is effective. When you look at what holds women back, the research shows that it’s role models, it’s lack of mentors, and it’s lack of a network of other like-minded individuals that they can have conversations with around topics like this. So I think, those are scenarios that are relatively easy. There aren’t a lot of barriers to making some of those kinds of things happen if there were programs that could help encourage that kind of activity.

QUINN: Yes. Now, Jessica, let me get you back involved here because I know in your report you came out with some recommendations, some of which I thought going to be somewhat easy to implement and potentially be at least some positive steps in the right direction. Can you give us some ideas of what we could do?

MILLI: Sure. I think this came up towards the beginning of our talk but obviously we do need more and better data on this topic to really just adequately assess what the problem is. For example, we know next to nothing about women of color in the patenting system to begin with because the data just don’t exist right now. And so developing systems and data tools to better track women’s progress in patenting would go a long way towards identifying what exactly the problem is and what areas we should be focusing on. But beyond that, more concrete tools to actually start addressing the patenting gap would be to develop some kind of more uniform network of support services for inventors, specifically targeted at women, and some of the qualitative research that we reviewed — one of the common themes that came up in interviews and other organizations’ reports were not knowing where to turn to find resources on the patenting process, not knowing how to navigate that process, where to find funding, and just a lack of mentors and people in their networks that women could draw on for help in order to navigate this process. So there’s a whole bunch of resources out there that exist, they’re just not in one uniform place and they’re kind of hard to locate, particularly again if you don’t have access to a robust network.

QUINN: I know that there have been some attempts by Patent Office to bring together women inventors programs and I think that’s a good move. I think that’s a step in the right direction, something that can be quite useful. One of them was in Louisiana and I know about that one because my wife attended and spoke about social media and promoting yourself using LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter. They had a whole bunch of different speakers that talked about a bunch of different things, which I thought was quite useful for women entrepreneurs, but where they had it in Louisiana was very difficult to get to. It was a plane ride and then a long automobile drive. More recently they had a similar event in Delaware, which is on the East Coast and is accessible, but it’s not the easiest part of the East Coast to get to and it’s also not the most populated part of the East Coast. It would seem to me that having these entrepreneurship conferences aimed at women that are in more populated locations, perhaps hosted by universities, would go a long way because then you would be able to pull in women from that host university as well as others from the local community and maybe that way you make introductions, which is important because business on every level is always about networking, right, whether it’s just to have a mentor, to know some people that are going through the same things you are that you can bounce ideas off of or just have connections. Any thoughts on that, ladies? Is there anything in the works?

GOTTWALD: I think you’re completely right, Gene, and one thing we’re trying to do with our AUTM Women Inventors Committee is to recognize that an international association like AUTM can make their members aware of programs that have been enacted at various university tech transfer offices – to put those ideas out there to say what’s worked and what hasn’t worked. There’s been a program promoting women in inventorship and entrepreneurship at Washington University in St. Louis going on, I think, probably a third year now, and we’re all really anxious to hear what they’re learning and what works there. There’s a program that just started from the tech transfer office at Northwestern University this past year. We’re trying to identify those programs so that people can enact them in their local innovation ecosystems and also working with making connections with other nationwide organizations that have local chapters and can do this. Because you’re completely right — you have to make it easier for people and when you have an event like this. You have to reach out and not assume that these women are going to self-associate that this is something that they should be attending. You have to invite them and say over and over again, I mean you, I think you could be an entrepreneur — could you please come to this and listen. You don’t want to say, “calling all female entrepreneurs” because you’re not going to get as large of a group. We’re trying to gather those best practices and allow people to enact them where they are to establish those local networks that are going to carry these women further in the process.

MUIR: I would just add that I think conferences are fine and they’re a good kick starter but they’re a far cry from being enough. We’re in the process of trying to create a Collaboratory for Women Innovators because what we learned by our Empowering Women in Technology Startups program is that we empower them with a good bit of knowledge — we gave them access to role models and mentors and so forth but then after the ten weeks, it was kind of like oh, now what? And so, I think that there needs to be templates and we’re hoping with our Collaboratory, to create a template for a community to establish more than just a conference but an ongoing program where various resources in a community can come together as mentors and as their network that they’re looking for to get answers to the various questions. It needs to be something more ongoing and sustainable than having just a conference. Conferences are good, but it’s not enough.

QUINN: Right. I mean that’s a first step but it’s not the end all be all for sure. Now, now, we’ve been going for a while, but before I let you go I want to talk about the one criticism I’m sure we will get and I’m sure you’ve heard before. Do we even need to be talking about this? Why do we need to get more women involved in STEM? Why should we care about getting more women inventing? What does it matter? I’ll lead you with my own thoughts and then I’d like to get your take. You don’t find more innovation by looking in places where you’re not likely to discover it. You’ll find innovation by researching and developing and we have several untapped sources of potential. Up until now there has been little or no real significant output on an entrepreneurial innovative level for female inventors, as well as with minority inventors. So I’m very interested in the types of programs that are going on at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and I’m very interested in the efforts to try and bring women into the entrepreneurial and innovative space because I think that’s where we can find creative, fresh ideas. So I think this is a very important initiative. I know you all have spent a lot more time with this and I’m sure you’ve got some better ways of answering that question. When somebody brings that up to you, what do you say?

GOTTWALD: I think you said it perfectly, Gene, when somebody asks me the question why I am concerned, I answer that as a licensing person in a university tech transfer office, I may not be seeing all the inventions that women faculty members and researchers are making. I’m very concerned because I want to have the best possible breadth and depth of technologies to be able to market to the world. I don’t want important breakthroughs happening at the university that I’m associated with that don’t get developed into products to help humankind because we couldn’t find a commercial partner – nobody knew about it, nobody could file a patent application on it, it went out as a basic university discovery and there was no incentive there for anyone to develop it into a commercial product, an applied product that could help us all. So I feel that I’m not looking at everything I should have access to in order to bring those inventions out into the world if I am not getting as many inventions disclosures from women or other groups that may be under represented on my campus. And I think you can take that very, very small segment and magnify it up into the U.S. economy. We are not seeing the potential of this innovation of women and other groups within our society and I think that hurts our economy.

MILLI: Well, I think I would just echo what Jennifer was saying just now that at a fundamental level women and men, ethnic minorities, whites, people with handicaps — we all experience the world differently and those differences in our experience of the world really contribute to the creative process in invention. And when we have large swaths of people who are not represented in that innovative process, we get products and processes that really don’t take into account a large portion of society and that’s also a problem. And again, from an economic standpoint, there’s research out there that shows that innovation and patenting is important to economic growth. In the economics literature it’s basically an axiomatic truth that technology is an important driver of economic growth and development. And so again when you have large portions of the population that are very underrepresented in the innovative process, you’re really not taking advantage of all of that growth potential, so again, also a big problem.

MUIR: So I think they — they said it very well. It’s very much an economic issue but I would also say that, a lot of people think oh, look, it’s that women’s issue, right? But it really isn’t. If you think about it, every one of us has a mother or a sister or a wife and when women are not participating in this whole innovation life cycle, then we’re all missing out whether it’s because we’re not creating products that solve problems that are typically encountered by women because that’s what we know innovation is all about. Or, whether women aren’t able to benefit from the financial rewards associated with participating. Well, we need to solve problems across all genders. It affects everybody and until we accept that and we accept the fact that it’s everybody’s responsibility to try to make a difference — that’s what it’s going to take to shift that paradigm.

QUINN: Okay, well, thank you, ladies very much for taking the time to chat with me today.


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