How in-house have improved female inventorship rates so far
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How in-house have improved female inventorship rates so far

The #IfThenSheCan exhibit at the Smithsonian in Washington DC. Credit: Hannele Lahti

Sources at Lenovo, Western Digital, BD and Pure Storage reveal the strategies that have worked best to increase representation of women on their companies’ patents

A fascinating new exhibit run by If/Then opened up at the Smithsonian in Washington DC this month.

The display, which ran between March 5 and 27, featured 120 3D printed statues of contemporary female inventors in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). At one point, some of those inventors even stood next to their orange copies for photos.

At its heart, the exhibit was intended to deliver one simple but vital message: female inventorship and encouraging more women to innovate is important to society.

Thankfully, a lot of R&D intensive and patent-focused organisations have already caught on.

The USPTO in particular has done a lot to champion female innovation lately. Most recently, it added several notable female innovators to its Inventor Collectible Card Series in honour of Women’s History Month.

But companies and their intellectual property people have done plenty too, and several have worked hard to increase the percentage of women and other underrepresented groups listed as inventors on US patents.

It’s still early days for a lot of these efforts, but counsel at BD, Pure Storage, Lenovo and Western Digital tell Managing IP that they’ve seen some of their policies start to yield positive results.

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Each company has approached the issue in different ways, of course. But attorneys have generally found that investing more time in female inventors – through mentorships with senior engineers, brainstorming sessions with inventors’ peers and training sessions with patent teams – has resulted in more women disclosing ideas.

These initiatives, sources say, help engineers realise that their ideas are patentable and get them more invested in the patent process.

Attorneys add that keeping track of data on female inventorship – which a lot of companies haven’t historically done – has also helped raise awareness of gender discrepancies in their businesses and helped them understand how they might change.

Meaningful mentoring

One strategy that’s been effective for at least one company is instituting a mentorship programme.

Sabra Truesdale, associate general counsel of IP at Western Digital in California, says her company piloted a programme in its Israel offices of pairing less experienced female inventors with more experienced male and female mentors.

After instituting this programme, it saw a large increase in invention disclosures in those branches that named women as inventors. The company also found that these disclosures generally had good outcomes, meaning Western Digital either decided to file patents on them or protect them as trade secrets.

The company then instituted the same programme in India.

The process wasn’t all smooth sailing, however, and that taught the company’s leaders that different initiatives were needed in different places.

Before Western Digital implemented this initiative in Japan, it got feedback from its patent expert there that female technologists weren’t comfortable with the mentoring programme.

Best brainstorms

The company asked its female engineers in Japan what they’d prefer, and in response to their feedback, provided more support for women participating in existing brainstorming sessions.

The idea has broad applicability, it seems. Other attorneys say brainstorming sessions have helped their companies make progress in this matter too.

Joseph Kucera, director of intellectual property strategy at Pure Storage in Texas, says his business encouraged four female engineers in different business units who hadn’t previously been listed on patents to join monthly meetings.

It also invited outside counsel to these meetings, tried to create an encouraging environment and urged the engineers to chime in and contribute ideas. After a few meetings, the team found a patentable idea.

“The engineers were very happy with the process,” says Kucera.

“Those four inventors have since become our megaphone. They’re going out to the community and talking about how delighted they were with the process and how well it went.”

He says it’s one thing when the patent team tells the female engineering community how easy the patent disclosure process is, but it’s even better when their peers encourage them to participate.

He adds that he’s since seen more female engineers submitting ideas, although he admits that he can’t be absolutely certain that the increase was a result of the new process. “But I don’t think it hurt us,” he says.

Other sources say they’ve directed their patent teams to proactively harvest ideas from female inventors and have encouraged company leaders to do the same.

Jason Friday, senior IP counsel at Lenovo in North Carolina, says his team holds quarterly briefings with the company’s business units, where they talk about diversity metrics. Managers are now taking it upon themselves to encourage women and minorities on their teams to submit ideas.

He says this manager support led to a direct improvement in the number of women submitting inventions.

Top training

Training inventors on the importance of the patent process and how to partake in it can also be helpful, say sources.

They note that many innovators, including women, hold a misconception that their inventions need to be groundbreaking to be patentable.

Attorneys, including Kucera at Pure Storage, have pointed out to their colleagues that this isn’t necessarily the case.

“Nobody has to invent the levitating car. All we need is a good idea,” he says.

Other attorneys say driving home this point has yielded some positive results.

Jeanne Lukasavage, associate general counsel of IP at medical device company BD in New Jersey, says her company hosted panels where female engineers emphasised that inventions didn’t have to be groundbreaking, and she saw some immediate results from these.

A couple of women called her right away and said they had inventions that they hadn’t submitted because they weren’t sure about them. They asked if they should disclose their ideas, and Lukasavage told them they absolutely should.

“It was just that they needed the boost and needed to hear that they should and shouldn’t think twice about it,” she says.

But others say training by itself hasn’t done much for them.

Friday at Lenovo says training can start conversations and create a lot of buzz, but that people then get back to the grind and lose steam.

“You need to pair that training with some sort of follow up,” he says.

Tracking the data

The concept of tracking inventorship rates of underrepresented groups gained a lot of publicity last July.

More than 30 companies signed a pledge to track data on inventorship rates of underrepresented populations including women, people of colour, veterans and people with disabilities.

Friday at Lenovo – which had already been tracking innovation and diversity data before the pledge – said that once his company decided to track female inventorship, it took it about a year to get this information into its system and run reports on who those inventors were.

Other sources agree that tracking the data has been an important step.

Lukasavage at BD says gathering the data has helped raise awareness of female inventorship rates at her company. She’s also learned that the business is trending in the right direction, although not as quickly as she’d like.

It may be too early to tell how all of these creative strategies will play out in the long term. But other in-house counsel whose companies have yet to improve their female inventorship rates should certainly consider giving these approaches a try.

If they do, they might well find some of their own colleagues featuring in a crowd of orange statues in the near future.

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