Less than 13% of all inventors listed in patents in the United States are women, and opening the way to inventor diversity would increase annual US GDP by nearly $1 trillion, quadruple the number of American inventors and lead to many new and different inventions. So say Holly Fechner, executive director of Invent Together, and Laurie Self, senior vice president and counsel, government affairs at Qualcomm, who spoke in a keynote fireside chat at last week's IP Dealmakers conference in New York. Their message was that the data show the gaps but also the available opportunities as more and more companies, researchers and government agencies seek to address lacking diversity. Fechner branded the low percentage of women named on inventions as "pretty astounding", especially after several years of attention being paid to boosting women in patenting. Other standout data showed that Black and Hispanic college graduates apply for patents at half the rate of white graduates. And there is a profound gap in income diversity as well. Children in top 1% of family income are 10 times more likely to patent in their lifetimes than children in the bottom half of family income. "What that tells us is there's opportunity," Fechner said. Researchers have determined that if women and people of colour patented at the rate of white men, we could add $1 trillion to the GDP, Fechner stated. The growth of inventor diversity over the past 20 years has been modest in the US, Europe and Japan compared to countries such as China and South Korea. The World Intellectual Property Organization has now made this a priority, she added. Fechner presented a graph showing the origins of inventors in the United States, revealing concentrations in the north and west, with pointers to income and exposure to inventing and patenting early in life.
Self explained that researchers have found that exposure to patent owners and inventors early on in a child's life has a profound impact on their perception of themselves as inventors, and the likelihood that they will invent. An objective Qualcomm has had for many years is to educate young people about careers with invention potential. Qualcomm's programme called Thinkabit Lab, founded close to 10 years ago, has now reached 90,000 students across the country. Qualcomm also has an initiative of focus groups among its engineers and an internal education programme. There are a range of other initiatives underway. For instance, the Intellectual Property Owners Association created a Diversity in Innovation Toolkit for corporations and AUTM, an Invent Together partner, has a Women Inventor's Toolkit for universities. There are numerous initiatives in government as well. Diversity has become a top priority for the USPTO, which is conducting research on diversity, and recently released results showing where women inventors-patentees were located by county in the US from 2017-2019.
It is important to move efforts into the policy arena, they stressed. In Congress, the CHIPS and Science Act passed this year authorises funding for diversity in science and other elements like sexual harassment and childcare policies, though the funding approval is still coming from Congress. The Unleashing American Innovators Act just passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee improves the US patent pro bono programme and creates a new USPTO office in the southeastern United States. The IDEA Act, which has bipartisan support but hasn’t made it to a final floor vote in Congress, would request demographic data from inventors on patent applications. In the end, the speakers emphasised that looking at statistics is not the same as showing commitment, and they combine data with stories about inventors and the obstacles they face through Invent Together. "It's really important for organisations to get your own house in order, to understand your own internal dynamics, to bring change internally so that you can use those lessons learned to promote change more broadly," said Self. "We're really heartened that many in the private sector are taking this on as a challenge," said Fechner. “And as Laurie said, it really starts with a self-analysis to look at your culture and what is happening, what are the barriers and how they can be overcome."