An in-house lawyer at Eastman Chemical Co. is leading the charge to correct a glaring lack of gender diversity among inventors.
Michelle Bugbee co-chairs the Women Inventors Subcommittee for the Intellectual Property Owners Association. At its annual meeting in September, the IPOA released the subcommittee’s “Gender Diversity in Innovation Toolkit” — a call to action for businesses in the U.S. and abroad to take the internal steps necessary to “capture” the full intellectual potential of their technical workforces.
The 96-page toolkit cites one study in particular as sounding a clarion call for change. According to the National Science Foundation, only 12 percent of recognized innovators in the U.S. are women — despite women earning 53 percent of Ph.D.’s.
The toolkit lays out a four-step plan for businesses and organizations to address diversity with respect to women and other groups. The first step involves increasing awareness and support at the executive level and among female and other diverse members of the technical workforce.
Second, organizations are called on to assess the “root causes” of the problem.
Step 3 involves developing short- and long-term programs to address relevant root causes, whether they involve the attitudes of managers, IP professionals and other inventors, or relate to workplace culture and in-house processes. For example, it proposes programs tailored to eliminate bias, intimidation or simple confusion in a company’s invention submission/patenting process.
The fourth step involves implementation and monitoring of programs.
Bugbee, senior counsel at Eastman Chemical’s offices in Indian Orchard, Massachusetts, teamed with her subcommittee co-chair, Sandra Nowak of Minnesota, and Washington, D.C. attorney Mercedes K. Meyer in leading the effort to draft a blueprint for companies and organizations to remedy the lack of gender parity in innovation.
Bugbee says the toolkit provides a concrete action plan that addresses an undeniable problem.
“There are plenty of women out there who are innovating and doing things, but they’re not patenting,” she says.
She recently spoke with NEIH’s Pat Murphy.
Q. Why is gender diversity in innovation an important issue that needs to be addressed?
A. There’s a large part of the technical workforce that’s not having their ideas captured, necessarily, and that results in a lost opportunity cost. [A recent] equity in innovation report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that about 20 percent of U.S. inventors between 1975 and 2010 were women. A World Intellectual Property Organization report found that less than 30 percent of [Patent Cooperation Treaty] applications had a least one woman on it [identified as an inventor].
Q. What are the institutional factors that prevent women inventors from fully developing and patenting their ideas?
A. We found that sometimes it’s just women’s desire to be perfect, to get everything exactly right before they submit it. Sometimes women aren’t put on the right projects that lead to more innovation.
Sometimes you have a group of people working on it. When you’re getting ready to file, patent attorneys ask whether [every inventor has been included]. Sometimes somebody doesn’t let you know that a woman was involved in a project. Sometimes women don’t speak up, whereas men tend to be much more likely to speak up and say, “Yes, I am an inventor on that. This is what I did. This is my work.”
Q. What are some of the specific problems that your toolkit targets?
A. Oftentimes the patent attorneys or IP professionals are [white] males. There’s not the same access to women and diverse inventors who may want to seek out [the IP professionals]. There’s a need for training programs for various affinity groups — women’s groups, Asian groups, Hispanic-American groups, African-American groups — to increase awareness of the patenting process, [teach how to fill] out invention disclosure forms, and make the patent attorneys more accessible.
Q. Does the problem boil down to women inventors not getting the credit they deserve?
A. That may be true in some cases, but I don’t think it’s true in a number of cases. If that were true, we’d have bigger problems because not naming the correct inventors on your patents may be cause for invalidating them.
More often [the woman inventor’s] ideas are not going forward. They’re not being considered. Sometimes [the problem is] the patent review committee that looks at invention disclosures. We’ve found that in some of the companies we’ve worked with those committees may be all male. It’s not necessarily that women aren’t being credited. It’s that their ideas aren’t even moving forward to get to the stage of drafting and filing patent applications.
Q. In 2018, you had companies and organizations test a draft version of the toolkit. What were some of the important lessons you took from the feedback given in those dry runs?
A. Many of them found the toolkit in the alpha stage to be really helpful. Many of the companies that we worked with were not even aware that there was a problem until we started talking about the toolkit. When they stop to think about it and consider the women inventors that they work with, they realize that maybe there is a problem.
Q. What suggestions would you have for in-house counsel to ensure their companies take full advantage of their intellectual capital?
A. If you’re in-house, be visible. Find ways to meet with your innovative community. Get in among those groups. If there’s a woman in an engineering group or [someone from other] affinity groups, [provide] that additional exposure to get people motivated. Get out there and make sure people know you exist as the IP attorney.
Have training sessions. If someone has worked with another company, they may not be familiar with [your company’s] invention disclosure process. Think about [your invention disclosure process]. Is it accessible to everybody? People coming out of college may never have filled out an invention disclosure form.
From the perspective of the IP professional, it’s also about being aware. Is it always the same people that you’re hearing from? Are there other people who seem to be afraid to speak with you? Reach out to them. Maybe you can find out that they have some ideas that are not being captured.