By Brice Wallace
Despite advances over the past four decades, the percentage of inventions patented by women remains minuscule.
Speaking to a group last week in Salt Lake City, Molly Kocialski, director of the Rocky Mountain Regional U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, cited statistics from the U.S. office that reveal that the share of patents including at least one woman as an inventor climbed from 7 percent in the 1980s to 21 percent in 2016.
“Which I think is great news for us,” she said. “That means we are inventing. We are applying for patents.”
However, women accounted for only 12 percent of all inventors on patents granted in 2016 despite women being 25 percent of the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) workforce.
“Even at 25 percent of the STEM workforce, women are not participating in the patenting part of innovation at the same rate as they’re participating in the workforce, and that to us is a pretty big red flag. That means that we need to have some more conversations and find out what’s going on,” she said.
“We know that women aren’t participating in patenting. And if you use patenting as a measure of innovation — which is actually a pretty good measure of innovation — you understand that we’re behind, and we need to figure out what will move the needle to help us catch up.”
Kocialski added that about half of the women in STEM careers leave those jobs after 12 years, with most of them out after five years. She said the office’s goal is to boost the women-inventors-in-patents percentage to match that of women in the STEM workforce, “so that when we have this conversation in 2026, we’re not going to be telling you that that [patent] rate is 12 percent again, that it’s going to be higher, that it’s going to be that women are participating on the patenting side of innovation hopefully at the same rate that they’re participating in the STEM workforce.”
The study also indicated that women are specializing in technology fields and sectors where female predecessors have patented rather than entering male-dominated fields or firms.
Kocialski said ways must be found to inspire the next generation of inventors — “Everybody has the ability to be an inventor,” she said — and that everyone needs to tell the stories of past and current women inventors. “Businesses need to tell them, you need to tell them, intellectual property attorneys need to tell them,” she said. “These are the stories we need to be inspiring the next generation with.”
During a panel discussion, several women inventors discussed challenges for women involved in innovation and patenting. They include women needing more training to understand the language of patenting and tensions regarding who gets credit for patents.
Jennifer Hwu, CEO of Salt Lake City-based InnoSys Inc., focused on the language issue. “It’s sort of the similar struggle as in venture capital, which is women often don’t feel they can participate because there’s a language around venture funding, and the same thing exists with patent law,” she said.
“The answer is not to get more women into STEM degrees. That number will never improve, not for the next 10 years, at the rate that we’re going as a nation. But if we can think differently about ‘where do great ideas come from,’ and then give them the language and knowledge, I actually think you’ll see a spike.”
Terrece Pearman, director of intellectual property and science advisor at Salt Lake City-based Medic.life, said getting credit for patents often results from a culture of “push and shove, the culture of needing to shove yourself in and fight your way to the top.” However, women often put that behind them and instead concentrate on resolving difficulties, she said.
“I’ve been in meetings where when the peacocks left the room, it just got where things started to happen more, and I think we could’ve saved a little time if we had just not had the guys here because they’re fighting over who gets the credit as opposed to solving the problem,” she said.
Last week’s gathering was organized by Tom Briscoe, a registered patent attorney at Salt Lake City-based Kunzler Bean & Adamson, who urged inventors to keep in mind the long-term benefits their inventions can bring to the world.
“Not only do we want to see women inventors successfully named as inventors on patents, but we also want to see women and men use these inventions to build their businesses, to build progress in society,” he said. “It’s not just about protecting the value of your innovation. It’s also about projecting the value of your innovation.”
Kocialski framed the issue in international terms. Innovation is a worldwide competition, she said, with the United States at a bit of a disadvantage against nations with larger populations that are innovating at a high rate — but that is offset by the U.S. having a long history of innovation and invention.
“Much of the world relies on the innovations and inventions that have come out of the United States of America,” she said. “At the end of the day, for us and for our nation, it’s incredibly important. I can’t stress enough how important it is. … And when we’re looking at the worldwide competition that we have for innovation, it’s absolutely essential that America continue to do that.”