Will More Women Patent Attorneys Lead To More Women Inventors?

Inventions typically emerge out of attempts to solve problems. Because people with different life experiences are motivated to solve different problems in different ways, striving to make the patent system more inclusive is eminently worthwhile. Put another way: Female inventors are more likely to patent solutions to problems that specifically or disproportionately affect women. This is not a hunch; it’s the conclusion reached by a team of researchers who studied biomedical patents issued from 1976 to 2010.

Since Director Kathi Vidal began leading 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, a fast-track program for inventors who are filing their first patent applications, and expansion of programs that offer free legal services to under-resourced inventors. Last week, in partnership with Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo, she debuted WE, a new initiative aimed specifically at women.

With the same spirit of inclusivity in mind, the USPTO has begun soliciting feedback from the public about whether it should expand the criteria to draft, file, and negotiate patent applications on a regular basis. Currently, the requirements to become a patent attorney or a patent agent in the United States include majoring in a list of degrees related to science and technology that is weighted towards engineering. (This is regardless of whether the practitioner intends on focusing on utility patents, which protect how an invention works, or design patents, which protect how an invention looks.)

In her 2o20 law journal article, “The Patent Bar Gender Gap,” former patent agent Mary Hannon makes a convincing argument for why expanding the list of eligible degrees to include STEM adjacent fields would diversify participation in the patent system without sacrificing patent quality. While women earn approximately half of all STEM bachelors degrees, Hannon points out, the requirements to take the patent bar favor degrees and coursework in physics, chemistry, and engineering, which women are statistically less likely to participate in. (Women are most active in the life sciences, which involve the study of plants, animals, and humans.)

There’s no need for handwringing about standards worsening: Patents issued in countries with much less stringent requirements to help inventors, including Canada and Japan, have been found to be of similar quality.

As an undergraduate, Wen Xie studied to become a doctor. Today, she is a patent attorney at Global IP Counselors who primarily works 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 be confident in her abilities. It’s possible to learn on the job, she says, but not without sustained mentorship. One of the most difficult things to learn is how to decipher patent drawings, she added, which is likely why engineering degrees—which require students to learn about technical drawings—are favored.

“Drawings are a major part of patent practice,” Xie told me in a phone interview. “If you can efficiently interpret the drawings, your work is cut in half.”

Evidence suggests that increasing the number of women who are able to pursue a career in patent prosecution—the term used to describe the process of drafting a patent application and negotiating with a patent examiner to get it issued—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 persists. Statistically, intellectual property is a boys’ club. Most patent attorneys are white men, and so are most inventors with patents. In seeking to understand who becomes an inventor in America, researchers from Harvard revealed extreme disparities in their bombshell 2018 report on “Lost Einsteins.” Exposure to innovation is a key factor in determining who eventually patents their inventions, they conclude.

This makes complete sense, as there is no clearly established pathway for becoming a successful inventor. On the contrary, the odds are stacked against independent inventors who want to commercialize their ideas. Transforming an idea into a new product or service—let alone a profitable one—typically requires at least some access to capital, extensive education, the freedom and support to repeatedly fail, and fortitude. If there are no examples to be inspired by in your local environment, you’re less likely to consider it.

Recent USPTO studies on women’s participation in the patent system corroborate the importance of exposure to innovation. For example, a new report analyzing where women are patenting on a county level over three decades shows that “growth in the number of women inventor-patentees was robust in counties where women were already patenting in the early 1990s.”

Similarly, the USPTO’s 2019 Progress and Potential report revealed that women inventors are increasingly concentrated in specific technology areas and types of organizations, as opposed to spreading out among many fields. Rather than entering into male-dominated fields or firms, like engineering, women are innovating where their female predecessors have already patented.

The quality of a patent is determined in part by the degree to which the person drafting, filing, and negotiating the application understands what makes the invention unique and important. It’s understandable, then, for inventors to want to work with a representative who fully grasps and respects the significance of their invention.

Consider the experience of the entrepreneur Sara Blakely, whose invention and commercialization of Spanx in the early 2000s resulted in her becoming the youngest self-made female billionaire. In recounting her patenting journey in front of 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 actually said there’s not a single female patent attorney right now in the whole state of Georgia.”

Blakely ultimately filed her first utility patent application pro se—meaning on her own—after balking at the price she was quoted by several attorneys. It was issued after just over a year of prosecution.

“We know that in the United States, even a modest increase in women in the workforce could add more than $500 billion to GDP over the next ten years. Quadrupling the number of inventors can add $1 trillion. That’s why we are enlisting a whole-of-government approach to bring more women and more Americans from traditionally under-served and under-resourced communities into the innovation ecosystem,” remarked USPTO Director Vidal. “This includes not only expanding the ability to practice before the USPTO, but also ensuring that all Americans have access to affordable innovation resources, legal counsel, and the capital and support it takes to transform an idea into jobs and solutions. We’re just getting started.”

Across the innovation ecosystem, from tech companies to intellectual property firms to law schools and government, there is a groundswell of energy in support of breaking down the barriers that have prevented members of under-represented groups from fully contributing their creativity. The stakes are high. To develop products and services that truly reflect that needs of all people, inventors with different genders, ethnicities, socio-economic backgrounds, education, and ways of learning must be nurtured and ultimately empowered to act.

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