A new 30-company diversity agreement is an important step in raising the rates of underrepresented inventors but could present some data tracking challenges, say in-house counsel at six signatory companies.
The US IP Alliance’s pledge, announced on July 23 and developed by professionals from Facebook, Lenovo and other organisations, requires companies to track data on inventorship rates of underrepresented groups such as women, people of colour, veterans and people with disabilities.
On the whole, sources feel confident about their ability to track this data. But hurdles such as reviewing international diversity statistics could be difficult to overcome, according to sources.
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Pledge participants are at different stages of the data tracking process. Some are still working on finding out how their patent portfolios reflect their employee populations. Others have been tracking this data for a while but view the agreement as an opportunity to fine-tune their diversity programmes.
Jason Friday, senior intellectual property counsel at Lenovo in North Carolina, says his company had already been tracking innovation and diversity data before the pledge, and that he’s excited about the agreement.
“One reason why I’m passionate about it is that our job is to provide an environment where all of our inventors feel included. This pledge has really allowed us to make our jobs more personable,” he says.
Counsel are also examining their methods for engaging inventors from underrepresented groups as part of this pledge.
Reasons for joining
Some attorneys decided to sign the agreement partly because they respected the people behind it, such as Suzanne Harrison, the diversity and inclusion co-lead at the US IP Alliance and principal at IP management consulting firm Percipience.
Joseph Kucera, director of IP strategy at Pure Storage in Texas, says a lot of the other companies involved in the pledge, such as Facebook, take diversity seriously.
He adds that he was also impressed by the involvement of Harrison, pointing out that she founded IP networking group The Gathering and wrote a very popular book on IP.
“She’s as legit as they come,” he says.
Other sources say they joined because the pledge complements their companies’ goals of increasing diversity and inclusion.
Ben Adams, chief commercial and IP counsel at PayPal in California, says the agreement lined up with his business’s effort to build a diverse workforce.
“The most important near-term impacts of the diversity pledge are building awareness, facilitating joint problem solving and encouraging other companies to move forward by shining a light on the fact that existing practices are not adequately engaging our underrepresented communities,” he says.
Counsel from the businesses that helped draft the pledge expressed similar sentiments about their reasons for getting involved.
Jeremiah Chan, head of patents at Facebook in California, says the social media company had been focused on how it could improve engagement of historically underrepresented inventors at its own company and how it could launch a broader movement.
Facebook spoke with experts from AnitaB, Diversity Lab and other organisations in the diversity and inclusion space. These specialists advised the company that attempting to launch diversity efforts alone and expecting others to follow wasn’t the best way to get more businesses on board.
The pledge was borne from these conversations.
The agreement requires companies to select one or more underrepresented groups on which to track inventorship data.
Many sources say they will initially focus on gender because it is an easier category to get data on.
Brett Alten, senior vice president and deputy general counsel at Hewlett Packard Enterprise in California, says it can be difficult to track ethnic diversity with international teams because what counts as underrepresented can vary between countries.
Scott Taylor, director of innovation and patent development at AT&T in Georgia, agrees, adding that Mexico might not track people of colour in the same way as the US.
And some countries might not allow companies to track diversity data. Taylor says that in these cases, the business would exclude this information.
Companies may also be hesitant to measure certain aspects of diversity because they don’t want to pressure their workers to disclose information that the employees don’t want to share.
Kucera at Pure Storage points out that tracking sexual orientation – even though it is an aspect of diversity – could cause privacy issues, and that he isn’t sure how companies would measure this category.
Although recording gender is easier than measuring other data, even that can be a little complicated, say sources.
Kucera points out that teams can’t be completely certain of employees’ gender identities.
Other sources say, however, that the process of tracking data shouldn’t cause significant confidentiality concerns for companies.
Chan at Facebook says IP teams don’t need to see any confidential employee information to measure progress for inventor communities, and they need to do a better job at explaining this fact.
He adds that companies already disclose similar metrics in their annual diversity reports, so it shouldn’t be a problem to track the same information for inventors.
As part of the pledge, companies will report their data to Richardson Oliver Insights, a patent market data provider, and it will be published in an anonymous and aggregated form.
Chan notes that Facebook has taken this part of the pledge one step further and agreed to publicly share metrics on the company’s female inventors in the coming year.
“Today it has become standard practice for companies to publish their diversity metrics – this has also allowed Facebook and others to set measurable goals and track progress. We hope to create the same standard of transparency for inventorship data,” he says.
The pledge also asks companies to increase engagement with underrepresented inventor groups.
Scott Frank, CEO of AT&T Intellectual Property in Atlanta, says his team has encouraged patent developers to work more with the diverse inventors they know and increase the pool of them.
The company has also created videos to help share the stories of these inventors across the business.
“It’s inspired a lot of other people to participate in the process. The diversity pledge has now given us additional focus and energy around this important area,” says Frank.
Other sources also say they are trying to conduct more outreach.
Friday at Lenovo says his team has been talking to underrepresented groups, letting them know that the patent process is an open and welcoming environment, and listening to any concerns they have.
He says that before the pledge, he thought it was important to implement a programme and track whether it worked. But he’s also heard that he needs to tailor these strategies to the people at the business.
“That involves more listening and understanding what concerns are unique to particular populations at this company.”
Some businesses have adopted new measures to review patents in an effort to improve diversity.
Alten at HPE says his company has moved away from the traditional patent committee review process and towards a crowdsourcing model.
The business anonymises the inventors to eliminate unconscious bias that may otherwise be present. “This way, the approval process is based as much as possible on the merits of the invention being considered for patenting,” says Alten.
He adds that in many instances, this process has already increased the number and diversity of inventors. The company has these statistics because it is ahead of the pledge’s proposed timeline for tracking data.
“However, the impact of our new approval process will take some time to fully understand because it can take years between the date an invention is submitted and the date a patent is issued,” he says.
Data tracking for diversity is tough, but companies are working hard at it. Once IP departments have better information, they can determine which policies will best help their underrepresented inventors – which will benefit everyone in the end.
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