Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Guest Post: Closing the Gender Innovation Gap with Guided Inventor Sessions

By: Kevin Ahlstrom, Associate General Counsel, Patents, Meta 

(This post is part of a series by the Diversity Pilots Initiative, which advances inclusive innovation through rigorous research. The first blog in the series is here, and resources from the first conference of the initiative are available here.)

Guided invention sessions not only increase idea submission rates but also transform individuals' perception of themselves as inventors. By creating a supportive environment and equipping participants with the necessary tools, these sessions pave the way for gender equality in patenting.

Women submit ideas for patenting at a lower rate than men

In 2021, I noticed that most of the ideas I received for patenting came from men. At Meta, employees are encouraged to submit patent ideas through an inventor portal. Women submitted less than 10% of the ideas I received, despite making up more than 30% of the technical and design roles in the organizations I supported. I was chatting with a research scientist about this, and I asked her why she didn’t submit more of her ideas for patenting. She said, “I tend to minimize my contributions compared to others on my team. I sometimes think that the big patentable ideas are for people above my paygrade.” 

Another female UI designer said, “We are all often working on things with many other people, and so it can feel presumptuous to claim ‘ownership’ over an idea. Vying for credit can bring up yucky shame feelings in me when I have been trained by our culture to make people happy, to support others, to help.”

I realized there were stark differences between the way that I, a male patent attorney, and many of my female coworkers view the invention process and related work. There are likely many causes for this engagement gap: 

  • differences in social expectations between men and women; 
  • fewer historical female inventor role models;
  • women may be implicitly penalized for claiming ownership and credit;
  • women often take on the unpaid labor of home and childcare responsibilities, leaving less time or energy for patent activities.

Regardless of the cause, it was clear that I could not rely solely on our inventor portal to capture women-generated innovation.

As my team and I searched for solutions, I initially wanted to hold training sessions for women on how to submit and advocate for their ideas. That’s what the men did – they submitted frequently and argued with me frequently; consequently, I approved more of their ideas for patenting. But why should we train women to act more like men? It didn’t make sense to ask women to change their behavior to fit inside a system that wasn’t designed for them. Instead of more training, we needed a change in our system to meet innovators where they were.

The Patent Team at Meta has been working on this issue for years. Together, we have made large strides in creating a patent program that is equitable and accessible to everyone. We’ve surveyed employees to better understand their needs, we’ve revamped our inventor portal to be more inclusive, we’ve held conferences and forums to spotlight diverse inventors and encourage other companies to improve, and much more.  

Wednesday, June 14, 2023

Guest Post: How We Can Bridge the Innovation Gap

By: W. Keith Robinson, Professor of Law, Faculty Director for Intellectual Property, Technology, Business, and Innovation, Wake Forest University School of Law. Watch his video proposing a Law and Technology Pipeline Consortium.

This post is part of a series by the Diversity Pilots Initiative, which advances inclusive innovation through rigorous research. The first blog in the series is here, and resources from the first conference of the initiative are available here.

The patent system is a foundational part of the United States’ innovation ecosystem. The country created a national patent system in 1789. While the patent system has evolved over 200 years, it has remained stagnant in one glaring way. The number of inventors and patent professionals that are women or belong to underrepresented racial and ethnic groups is alarmingly low as compared to white men. While this disparity raises concerns about inclusivity, it also raises the possibility that there are untapped reservoirs of creativity and innovation within our borders. 

For example, a 2016 study by the Innovation Technology and Innovation Foundation revealed that 3.3% of U.S.-born innovators identified as Hispanic, and 0.4% of U.S.-born innovators identified as black or African American. The same study found that women represent just 12% of U.S.-born innovators. These numbers might seem staggering to some. Others might genuinely ask why these numbers should raise concerns. 

One need look no further than the changing demographics of the U.S. Census data from 2020 indicate that the share of the U.S. population that identifies as White has declined for several decades. The U.S. is becoming more diverse, and it seems this trend will continue. In Peter F. Drucker’s book, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Drucker argues that demographics are the clearest external source of innovative opportunity. Underrepresented innovators tend to address overlooked problems that are inherent to their communities. The country’s changing demographics could provide a wealth of untapped innovative opportunities.

The question then, is what is the cause of the demographic disparity in the patent system, and how can we address it?