Jayshree Seth filed her first U.S. patent application with several colleagues within a year of landing a job at 3M in 1993.
The discovery had to do with disposable softgoods such as diapers. The sense of empowerment that came when 3M accepted her innovation and federal officials issued a patent launched a career that so far has led to 65 other patents and a title of corporate scientist.
A push by 3M to help women scientists and engineers innovate made a big difference for Seth. The company’s commitment to increasing the number of women in its technical ranks and management led to an acceptance of females in a world once dominated by white men. So did a culture of information-sharing among 3M scientists.
Inclusiveness has become so important at 3M that employees are evaluated on it as part of annual reviews.
A recent report by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) shows how critical such initiatives are to the country’s public and private sectors. The office found that among patents granted in 2016, only 12% of inventors listed on the patents were women. The report cites a Harvard University study that concluded that if “women, minorities, and low-income children were to invent patented technology at the same rate as white men from high-income … households, the rate of innovation in America would quadruple.”
The report has members of Congress looking at 3M for solutions as they confront what they call “lost Einsteins,” although one female physician inventor suggests “lost Marie Curies” might be more appropriate. Other big companies such as Procter & Gamble, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Abbott Laboratories are looking for ways to increase innovation among female employees because of what it can bring to their businesses.
“There needs to be an appreciation of diversity,” said Seth, who earned a doctorate in chemical engineering. “We’re losing out on inventions. [Different kinds of people] bring different ideas to the table. We need those ideas.”
Without policies to promote them, the USPTO reports that it could take until the end of the century to achieve gender equality in innovation.
The percentage of Minnesota female inventors receiving patents lagged slightly behind the national average in 2016, the USPTO report showed.
Nationally, the invention gender gap has caught the eye of Congress and sparked recent hearings in the U.S. Senate and House. Among those called to testify was Sandra Nowak, 3M’s assistant chief intellectual property counsel. Nowak told senators about 3M’s mandate to recruit a “diverse global workforce.”
In 2011, she explained, the company announced a program that includes recruiting women in STEM jobs and developing pipeline programs to bring more women into science and engineering.
The company’s Visiting Wizards program for first- through sixth-graders puts 3M employees in classrooms to talk about ways in which science can be interesting and fun. Many of those employees are women scientists whose presence advances a role-model theory: “You can’t be it unless you can see it.”
“What 3M is doing is important,” said U.S. Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del.
In addition to mentoring, the company provides volunteers for the Minneapolis-based LegalCorps, which runs an inventor support program that offers free legal and technical advice on how to patent innovations. The program covers people living in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota.
“Patents are expensive, and women generally get paid less than men,” Nowak said. “So women entrepreneurs pay proportionally more.”
Patents are important because they attract venture capital. Without them, female entrepreneurs with good ideas confront an unlevel playing field, U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., said in a recent Senate hearing, “especially for borrowing money.”
USPTO Director Andrei Iancu is currently traveling the country explaining programs the agency offers to inventors, including women. In a statement to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee’s intellectual property subcommittee in March, Iancu said the USPTO’s Patent and Trademark Resource Centers, located in more than 80 public, state and academic libraries, provide regular programming as well as access to experts and librarians trained in intellectual property.
Of the six current or former 3M employees in the National Inventors Hall of Fame, two are women. One of them is the late Patsy Sherman, who helped invent Scotchgard, one of 3M’s signature products.
With 100 patents to her name, Sumita Mitra is the other. She joined 3M in 1978, when there were few female Ph.D.’s in the company’s technical research and development operation.
“As far as getting patents, I didn’t run into any obstacles,” recalled Mitra, who pioneered many breakthroughs in dental fillings. “At first, there were doubts if I could make it. But there were not a lot of barriers to sharing information at 3M. That is really key to the successful practice of getting a patent.
“It is helpful to collaborate with other people. It is one thing to have an idea. But you need to reduce it to practice at 3M.”
Inventors also need to explain how that practice will make money for the company.
Women scientists are perfectionists by nature, Nowak said. Some may not feel confident enough to push their ideas early. “The confidence piece is a hard one,” she said. “You can’t legislate that, and it is difficult to teach.”
Seth says that fact requires adjustments by managers. “Managers may need to draw out ideas from women,” she said. “Women have to be assertive enough to say, ‘I proposed that.’ ” Seth believes 3M’s culture of “everybody helping everybody” makes a difference.
Still, both Mitra and Seth said female STEM inventors must steel themselves to working in a world that has traditionally accommodated white men. Both women studied among and bested male counterparts in university settings. Both were well-served by parents who warned them to expect doubts about their abilities because of their gender when they entered the workforce.
Seth says she profited by growing up when Indira Gandhi was prime minister of India and Margaret Thatcher was prime minister of England. That strengthened her conviction that women could be whatever they wanted to be.
Other gender-specific issues may inhibit female participation in the corps of inventors with patents.
Women with STEM backgrounds may migrate to academia early in their careers because university settings are more conducive to starting a family, Mitra said. Academics lag far behind corporate employees in seeking patents.
“Trying to manage all aspects of life — family, children, leave — was more difficult in industry,” Mitra said. “If you are teaching, you get summer off and spring break. Our family-leave policies in this country are not as liberal as other places.”
Government policies or at least a guideline that applied to businesses would help, she said.
At the Intellectual Property Owners Association, Nowak co-chairs a Women Inventors subcommittee that is assembling a “tool kit” of best practices to encourage female innovators. Although 25 companies contributed ideas, many of the practices are drawn from 3M. The association plans to distribute its tool kit to its 175 corporate members by the end of 2019.
An image adjustment may also be in order. Seth figured her daughter, the child of two successful STEM professionals, would gravitate naturally to the STEM world. Instead, Seth found that the pop-culture stereotype of scientists as nerds drove her daughter away.
Combined with a lack of role models, the prospect of being thought of as geeky might make girls more susceptible to peer pressure, Nowak speculated.
At 3M, a series of videos called “Beyond the Beaker” strives to spread the message that outside the lab, scientists are just like everyone else.
Mitra is on board for whatever it takes to develop more women inventors.
“Science does not know gender,” she said. “Put everyone in the pool and harvest the genius.”