Congressional panels on IP seek to improve rates of female inventorship

One recent study showed that at the current rate, gender parity in patenting won’t be achieved for 118 years.


The history of the U.S. patent system shows that it has played a role in enabling marginalized but ambitious and inventive people to participate in the country’s innovation economy. But it could do better these days, particularly as it pertains to women.

On April 3, the Senate Subcommittee on Intellectual Property held a hearing titled “Trailblazers and Lost Einsteins: Women Inventors and the Future of American Innovation” —a topic that also was considered on March 27 by the House Committee on the Judiciary’s Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet in its first hearing of the term.

The House hearing was titled “Lost Einsteins: Lack of Diversity in Patent Inventorship and the Impact on America’s Innovation Economy.” Like the Senate hearing, it focused on a recent report on female inventorship released by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and featured testimony on how to improve rates of female inventorship from a collection of women in fields having strong ties to the U.S. patent system.

Parity is far away

Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), chairman of the House IP Subcommittee, acknowledged in his opening remarks that this was the first hearing held by the IP Subcommittee for the 116th Congress. He noted that the first patent awarded by the U.S. government to an African-American was to Thomas L. Jennings in 1821, decades before slavery was ended. In 1793, more than a century before women earned the right to vote in America, Hannah Wilkinson Slater was awarded a patent for a method of producing cotton sewing thread.

However, the recent USPTO report on gender diversity indicated that there has been no substantial progress made in patents earned by female inventors. “When women and minorities are not in the innovation pipeline or if they leave because they don’t feel welcome, we are losing sources for increased innovation,” Johnson said. “We are leaving talent on the table and, frankly, we are leaving talent behind.”

The first person on the witness panel to offer testimony was Michelle K. Lee, former undersecretary of commerce for intellectual property and USPTO director. She said one recent study showed that at the current rate, gender parity in patenting won’t be achieved for 118 years.

Lee noted that there are typically two ways in which corporations solicit invention disclosures from their employees: through voluntary submissions or through manager-initiated brainstorming sessions. The latter approach tends to be more productive in getting disclosures from female inventors, Lee said.

She discussed initiatives led by the USPTO during her tenure as the first female director of that agency, including the creation of the Girl Scout IP Patch. She added that a focus on the disparate ways that boys and girls were raised in our society, from the toys they play with to the activities they pursue, could help answer disparity issues in the innovation economy.

What research has found

Following Lee’s testimony was Lisa Cook, associate professor of economics and international relations, and the director of the American Economic Association Summer Training Program at Michigan State University. Cook learned at an early age that the U.S. patent system could be more inclusive by looking at the example of her cousin, Percy Lavon Julian, the inventor of cortisone. His home in Oak Park, Illinois, was twice firebombed by racists who opposed his family’s move to the suburb.

Cook’s research showed that the nation’s economy could be 3 percent to 4 percent larger if women and underrepresented minorities were included in the innovation system to a greater degree. She also produced research showing that, among scientists and engineers, African-American unemployment was 4.7 percent compared to a 2.9 percent unemployment for whites.

Increasing efforts to include women in research and development teams could result in greater productivity, as research has also found that co-ed R&D teams are more productive than single-gender teams.

Susie Armstrong, senior vice president of engineering for Qualcomm, Inc., said that for companies like hers that are trying to take the lead in 5G mobile networks and other areas of innovation, more great tech minds from underrepresented communities are needed.

An inventor who helped create single-packet data communications that allowed cell phones to access the internet for the first time, Armstrong said Qualcomm produced educational initiatives such as the Thinkabit Lab, which partners with school districts and libraries to encourage students to innovate in the Internet of Things (IoT) sector.