Sometimes the grandest macroeconomic ambitions of a nation pivot on how effectively its legal system incentivizes innovation.
I know this firsthand. I have spent close to three decades as a lawyer working on patent issues, widely regarded as the heart of legal-economic frameworks for national and international innovation. I have analyzed and dissected the most arcane and complex aspects of this area of law, on behalf of clients all over the world. And for the most part, it has been an incredibly interesting and rewarding pursuit.
But recently, the subject has become dishearteningly personal.
In early 2016, a colleague and I decided to look into the topic of women inventors. We wanted to know how many there were, why they were drawn to inventing, and what, if any, barriers were keeping them from pursuing their dream of becoming an inventor.
One reason I became interested in this area was the wonderful and inspiring work of historian Zorina Kahn, whom I have had the pleasure of getting to know through my patent-rights work in Washington, D.C. Ms. Kahn has written extensively about the unique democracy of the U.S. patent system. Though there was a time when many women filed patents using only their initials — a clever method for disguising gender and guaranteeing their patents were judged on the merits — under federal law inventive women owned their patents even when the rest of their property legally belonged to their husbands. I challenge you to name another area of the law, business, or society for that matter, where women were so effectively treated as men’s equals.
But another and somewhat more depressing factor that drew me to this issue was the shockingly low number of patents being filed by women today. A new research paper by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research revealed that only 7 percent of “primary inventors” listed on U.S patents are women. You read that correctly: 7%. In fact, less than 20% of patents in 2010 included any women inventor at all. At this rate, the IWPR estimates it may be 2092 — 75 years — before the gap closes.
As a lawyer who cares deeply about the patent system, a professional woman, and a mother of a daughter and son who have both attended the U.S. Patent and Trade Mark Office’s (USPTO) Camp Invention, I was shocked by these findings. But I have also learned that necessity is the mother of invention and if I want things to progress more quickly, I have to get involved and get my like-minded colleagues in Washington involved.
To that end, I worked with the Innovation Alliance to host an event on Capitol Hill on December 1 to examine the role of women in patenting. We were joined by Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, IWPR Vice President and Executive Director Barbara Gault and Study Director Jessica Milli, Jennifer Gottwald from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, Jane Muir from the Innovation Hub at the University of Florida and Ami Patel Shah from the venture capital Fortress Investment Group. This esteemed group discussed steps we can take now to narrow the patent gender gap and expand economic inclusivity — steps that increase U.S. innovation and leadership. Here are some of their key recommendations:
- Encourage women to invent from an early age through exposure in the classroom to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
- Educate women on the vast number of opportunities open to individuals with STEM degrees — in other words, you don’t have to become a math teacher.
- Help women build networks to increase access to industry contacts and investment.
- Encourage and empower women to pursue patent rights.
- Ensure that the U.S. patent system remains strong and inclusive (i.e., policies that weaken the rights of inventors may disproportionately impact women and other underrepresented groups).
Michelle Lee, Director of the USPTO and the first woman in history to run that agency, is also laser-focused on this issue. At her swearing in ceremony, Director Lee spoke about the importance of bringing more women into the technology and investment firms that serve as the backbone of our economy. Later, at a conference in Texas, she told an audience, “I am not advocating for women and girls because I am a woman. I am advocating for women and girls because I understand that we cannot succeed in the global economy with, in effect, one hand tied behind our back.”
Director Lee knows perhaps better than anyone just how much is at stake. According to a recent U.S. Department of Commerce report, IP-intensive industries support more than 45 million jobs in this country and contribute more than $6 trillion to our gross domestic product. But imagine the additional economic opportunities and value we could unleash if women, who make up 50% of the population, were fully participating in the invention ecosystem. What would the world be like if there were as many Grace Hoppers as there are Vint Cerfs or Robert Kahns?
We have known for decades that economies grow when the women in them work (see The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) work on the subject, for example). The more that women find ways to contribute their ideas and inventions to the economy, at a rate that at least equals their numbers as half the American population, the better off our country and the world will be.