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25 April 2023

We can all do more – Working towards gender parity in patents

In a recent article we highlighted that the percentage of female inventors at the EPO stood at just 13% in 2019.

Key factors discouraging women from participating in the patent process appear to include a lack of information – both an actual lack (“information gap”) and a perceived lack (“confidence gap”). The responsibility remains on everyone to help improve the present situation, including those of us working in the patent profession, to help achieve greater gender diversity in innovation and patents.  Below, I’ve explored some of the factors holding back progression and have highlighted some potential changes we can make as patent attorneys to increase female participation in patents:

Perfection not required

A study was conducted by the World Economic Forum of the company Western Digital to identify the factors that limit the number of women participating in the patenting process. Similar to the phenomenon which prevents women for applying for a job unless they meet all the necessary requirements, it was learned that women often believe that an invention cannot be patented if it is not ‘perfect’. Educating women that perfection is not required to submit an invention disclosure may help increase participation in the process.

Action: Educate your inventors on the commercial and legal hurdles involved in seeking patent protection. For those new to the patenting process, encourage the submission of all ideas so that a collaborative determination can be made of whether patent protection is appropriate.

A friendly forum

Diversity efforts may have given women a seat at the table – or, in the recent times, a place on the Zoom call – but that doesn’t necessarily mean they have a voice.

With hybrid working now the norm for many, a growing body of research shows that it is not necessarily a leveller for meetings. Almost half (45%) of female US business leaders surveyed said it was difficult for women to speak up in virtual meetings on platforms like Zoom, while one-in-five women felt they’d actually been ignored on such calls.

Action: Consider the appropriate forum for encouraging female inventors to speak up, for example, perhaps 1:1 environments or small groups are more likely to be effective. In person meetings may help in developing interpersonal relationships with female inventors. Equally mentorship arrangements between past, present and future female inventors can help to break down perceived barriers.

The authority gap was addressed in the book The Authority Gap by Mary Ann Sieghart. It’s a highly recommended read for anyone interested in this subject further.

Time

In many organisations, invention harvesting and patenting activities are often seen as a ‘side project’ to be fitted in around a technical and demanding day job.

Whilst 35% of all adults, and 44% per cent of working adults, have caring responsibilities, these responsibilities are not evenly spread. Women account for 85% of sole carers for children and 65% of sole carers for older adults. Additionally, one in five (19%) women have left a job because it was too hard to balance work and care (source).

For those with caring responsibilities additional work outside of core working hours is often not viable. This means a wide resource of innovative potential is lost through lack of time and incentive to prioritise patents.

Action: Assist your business or client in prioritising patenting as an activity to be conducted during the working day. Wherever possible, avoid allowing patenting to slip into a ‘side project’ to be carried out in spare time and assist technical teams in setting aside time for these activities.

Unconscious bias

Unconscious or implicit bias can lead to instinctive assumptions a woman is not an inventor. Unconscious bias can be present even in people who genuinely believe they’re committed to equality – it’s much harder to spot and root out than obvious discrimination!

Action: Try to recognise and acknowledge the bias that exists within technical and legal teams alike. Assess which biases are likely to affect you both individually and as a team and consider methods to modernise your invention disclosure process such as: anonymised invention disclosure forms, positive action to seek inventions from female inventors and reviewing the wording of any formal documents or emails which could discourage women from engaging.

The reward

The innovative potential of all minority groups is underutilized at a time when we need the widest possible range of talents to solve the pressing problems facing humanity. Both an overall increased inventive output and an increased diversity of invention can be achieved by encouraging women and other minorities to become more involved in the patenting process. A 2020 report by McKinsey & Co titled ‘How inclusion matters’ made the business case for diversity, equity, and inclusion stronger than ever, including highlighting how diverse companies are now more likely than ever to outperform less diverse peers on profitability.

Some clients have even highlighted to us that women who are named as an inventor on their first patent application are more likely to go on to be repeat inventors compared to their male colleagues. This shows that once an appropriate forum for invention disclosure has been achieved, women feel more comfortable in repeatedly contributing to the patenting process.

Furthermore, some of the proposed actions no doubt help improve the patenting experience for all involved – men and women, patent attorney and inventors.

Please contact Hannah Auger or your usual Venner Shipley advisor if you would like to discuss the contents of this article further.

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