For 226 years, men led the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the agency that fosters American innovation and entrepreneurship. Enter Michelle Lee, the agency’s first female leader.
A Silicon Valley native who built a radio with her father in the family living room, Lee grew up with female classmates who thrived in math and science.
But there were fewer females in her computer science and electrical engineering classes at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology and even fewer as she went on to conduct lab research for Hewlett-Packard. Today, despite occupying half the nation’s jobs, women hold fewer than a quarter of jobs in science, technology, engineering and math, she said.
Nominated by President Barack Obama in 2014 to lead the nation’s patent and trademark agency, part of Lee’s mission was to change that, to involve more women and plug leaks in the nation’s innovation pipeline. Her strategy: Start early, and “spark in our children the desire to invent and create.”
“We can’t afford to leave inventors behind,” Lee told the NewsHour. “You never know who’s going to come up with that next big idea.”
Narrowing the Gap
Today, women hold less than one out of five STEM-related patents, and it’s been slow growth just to make it that far.
Still, that’s a huge rise since 1977 when women were awarded only 3 percent of all patents. By 1996, that figure had only gone up 10 percentage points.
And there’s still a long way to go, said Jessica Milli, who led a recent study that explored this issue for the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. At the rate it’s climbing now, it will be 2072 before women are awarded as many STEM patents as men, according to the institute.
What feeds this disparity?
Milli floated some possibilities. Men still outnumber women in STEM research, which means women have smaller, more limited networks they can turn to for advice, she said. Those networks can also make the difference in access to venture capital to usher an idea into reality.
To guide more women toward STEM careers, Harvey Mudd College President Maria Klawe says you have to “make the first course wonderful” and provide plenty of encouragement as opposed to offering introductory courses designed to weed out students.
Klawe, a mathematician who dedicated her life to diversifying math and science, also encouraged professors to reframe class instruction as creative problem solving.
This year for the first time, more than half of Harvey Mudd College’s graduating class of computer science majors were female students, more than three times the national average, she said.
“If computer science departments decide this is something they want to do, it’s not particularly difficult to do,” she said.
Despite demand for greater inclusion of women in STEM, little data is readily available to track progress in patents. When someone fills out a patent application, the federal patent office does not collect information about gender, race or ethnicity, Milli said: “The fear would be that the examiner would use that to discriminate against the patent applicants.”
To generate data and offer insight into the gender breakdown in innovation, researchers used name-matching software to analyze applicant names on patents.
Leading by Example
Lisa Seacat DeLuca is one of IBM’s most prolific inventors.
When DeLuca interned at technology giant IBM in 2003, she noticed walls filled with shiny plaques that highlighted her colleagues’ inventions. She didn’t know a thing about patents, but she wanted plaques of her own.
She then scoured the Internet to learn about the patent process, found a mentor and submitted her first patent application — an idea that made work easier for computer programmers and web developers.
More than a decade later, she holds more than 250 patents and an additional 250 pending applications and was selected as an invention ambassador for the American Association for the Advancement of Science. And she’s collected so many company plaques for her innovations, she asked IBM to stop sending them.
DeLuca is part of a small but growing number of women who have been awarded STEM-related patents. And to demystify patents and expand access to innovation, she says early exposure for girls to math, science and inventing is everything. She is among a team of people who promoted the creation of a new Girl Scout patch: the intellectual property patch.
“You can’t invent something if you don’t know enough about the space,” she said.
“Decades of a Broken System”
In 2011, in a sweeping set of patent reforms, Congress passed the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act. The new law was designed in part to support more women and people of color in innovation and create a system that monitors diversity if these goals are met.
But during public comment, many people rejected mandatory surveys on gender, race and ethnicity and instead “strongly urged the USPTO to conduct surveys only on a voluntary basis out of privacy concerns,” according to a September 2015 report from the patent office. Concern remained that the resulting data would be skewed and inaccurate if applicants voluntarily submitted this information.
Historically, the patent office has not asked for an applicant’s gender or race, Lee said, but based on research so far, she concedes that diversity data for applicants “are not as good as they could be.”
The absence of meaningful diversity data perplexed Navrina Singh, who oversees a team that identifies emerging technologies and markets for telecommunications company, Qualcomm, in San Diego.
“You can’t solve for something if you don’t know what the causes are,” she said.
Women need more confidence to share their ideas and more role models in STEM, she said.
And in her own work in the information and technology sector, Singh says she looks at overall contributions to innovation, rather than patents alone, to understand whose ideas catch fire. Patents, Singh said, are a symptom, not the problem.
As executive director of the technology policy advocacy group Tech:NYC, Julie Samuels agrees. She says too often, people assume patents are “somehow a stand-in for innovation.”
If people want to see more female inventors and entrepreneurs, Samuels said it’s crucial to share those stories and empower more women to build up their own ideas, inventions and companies.
“We have some work to do. It’s not just women. It’s diversity in all shapes and forms,” Samuels said. “We have to undo decades of a broken system.”