The Intellectual Property Owners Association’s newly released “tool kit” to increase the number of female inventors outlines in precise detail almost every step corporations and universities should take to close a gaping gender gap in corporate and academic innovation.
Companies and colleges sought a prescriptive approach, said Sandra Nowak, a 3M intellectual property counsel who helped craft the 96-page tool kit as part of the IPO’s Women in IP Committee.
“We tested a version with less detail,” Nowak said. “What people want is something very step-by-step with multiple examples [of how to take each step]. You need top-down buy-in from executives. But you need a grassroots understanding of why you need [change].”
The dearth of female inventors and patent holders in the U.S. has been described as a national crisis. It has sparked calls to action from federal patent officials as well as members of Congress.
They say the innovation gender gap not only hurts women, but also cheats all Americans out of breakthroughs that can enhance everything from health care to human resources. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office reports that in 2016 just 12% of patents granted listed women inventors. Researchers at Harvard University say if women, minorities and low-income children can be drawn into the patent process at the rate of high income white men, the country’s innovation rate could quadruple.
To help create that inclusion, the Gender Diversity in Innovation Toolkit is free and can be downloaded by anyone. It has its own hashtag — #ipodiversitytoolkit.
The kit offers everything from an “elevator pitch” to a blueprint for determining different kinds of “root causes” of gender inequity in individual businesses. It offers specific ways to correct specific problems and measure outcomes. Then, it shows how to keep the process running in a continuous cycle with each new cycle applying lessons learned.
“It was never meant to be final,” Nowak said. “It is always supposed to be a working document.”
The original tool kit contained no metrics for measuring success. That changed, Nowak explained, because executives who invest manpower and money want to judge results.
“I love the details [of the tool kit],” said Sofia Bapna, who studies gender gaps and entrepreneurship at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. “My concern is how do we spread the word and get [businesses and universities] to adopt it. Most likely it will have to be a woman who opens this discussion.”
Bapna’s research shows a major obstacle for women inventors is lack of access to mentors and decisionmakers to guide them through the invention, patent and funding process.
But, Bapna cautions, talk of reform won’t get far without strong executive buy-in. The more female board members and executives an individual company has, the better the chance of success, she predicts.
Some Minnesota companies have already embraced a quest for diversity among innovators. At 3M, which has two women employees in the National Inventors Hall of Fame, a top-down order to increase the number of women in technical jobs and management offers a national model. So does the company’s culture of information sharing and measuring inclusiveness when evaluating job performance.
For more than a decade, Medtronic’s board included Shirley Jackson, a patent holder and the first black woman to earn a Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The Medtronic Women’s Network operates out of 100 hubs worldwide and focuses on “creating professional development, networking, and mentoring programs and tools that empower women to come here, grow and lead here,” a spokeswoman for the multinational medical device maker said.
Medtronic has three female board members. 3M has four.
Nationwide, however, concerns remain. The women inventors tool kit lists three categories of root causes for the innovation gender gap.
The first is “people-related.” Women don’t know what to do to protect their original ideas. They may work in jobs that are not typically involved with inventions. If they do, they may be reluctant to apply for patents until their inventions are “perfect.”
The second is “process-related.” The submission process is biased or unknown.
The third root cause is “cultural.” The company does not support or welcome female inventors.
Some studies show that women patent applicants have less success than men when the gender of the applicant is known. Other studies don’t. Some studies show that investors prefer men over women. Others don’t.
A push for diversity may be changing the landscape. One of Bapna’s recent studies found that experienced investors judged business opportunities based on the venture, not the gender of its founder. Inexperienced male investors were equally gender blind. Inexperienced female investors preferred women’s ventures.
“They may trust females more or they may be doing it for activism,” Bapna said.
Trying to make changes to problems that are ingrained in business operations or culture is tricky. Nowak said the tool kit’s authors worked to put a positive spin on all of its approaches to avoid pushback from anyone, including old boy networks that still dominate in some places.
The message, she explained, is “Look, we all need to grow. We need to use everybody on the bench to help. That plays better than ‘we have a broken culture and we need to fix it.’ ”