Mentors matter, in terms of driving career achievement in any number of ways. If you show me a trial lawyer, I can guarantee you that one or more mentors helped them develop the unique set of skills that trial work demands. Or a crack patent prosecutor, skilled in the art of convincing patent examiners to allow well-crafted claims from a validity and future enforcement perspective. There too, we would expect to see a mentor or two that was there to impart wisdom, share experiences, and provide actionable guidance as our now-expert IP lawyer made their way up the ranks. What is true for lawyers is also true for inventors, who have been shown to benefit from exposure to other inventors, or to IP lawyers, in terms of increasing the likelihood that their innovation gets patented.
In fact, the benefit of such exposure and to mentors is particularly noticeable in populations that are underrepresented in the patent owner ranks. Chief among those populations are women, who represent just 13% of U.S. patent owners, despite their tremendous strides in academic achievement and increased involvement in a broad range of technology efforts. According to WIPO, the gender patent gap in North America is expected to close in 2055 — which is around the time that tourism for middle-aged folks to the moon is expected to become a reality. Closing the patent gender gap in Europe will apparently require more time, with WIPO predicting we will see patent parity in terms of male and female inventors by 2088 (perhaps just in time for my 111th birthday). When put in such terms, things look pretty bleak, especially when we think about the cost to society of having patent systems that are not living up to their promise of fostering innovation by the half of humanity that is female.
Even as the challenge of getting to patent filing parity looks daunting, there is no reason for despair. There have been some successes to date, at least in terms of increasing the geographic distribution of U.S.-based female inventors, whereby an “additional 411 counties had women patent holders between 1990 and 2019, a 32% increase” over the prior statistics. Helping to drive that increase was a larger distribution of women inventors in research and technology hubs, including in areas where the presence of large research universities helped to offset relatively smaller population sizes. What the data seems to suggest, therefore, is that being around other inventors and innovative activity has a positive impact on the number of women who end up securing patent protection. Likewise, being around other educated female populations also seems to help as the research has found that there are “52% more highly educated women in counties with women patent owners.”
Based on the above, you would think that female Ph.D. students would have many advantages in terms of getting to the point where they become named inventors on patented technologies. But a recent paper published by MIT suggests that it is not enough to be working in a lab or on a Ph.D. thesis for female graduate students to become patent filers as named inventors. In fact, the researchers found that a gender gap continues to persist, where “female STEM doctoral students are less likely to become new inventors compared to their male counterparts during the years of their training.” In an attempt to understand the phenomenon, the researchers looked at the impact of faculty advisors, because “advisors and Ph.D. students patenting together as co-inventors on work coming out of a lab is a key channel for advisees to learn how to patent and become new inventors.” Students lucky enough to land an advisor with patent experience made it much more likely that they would become inventors as Ph.D. candidates themselves. Which makes sense, since the patenting process can be complex for neophytes to navigate, so having the guidance of others that have gone through it can be a potent driver of success. Unfortunately for female PhD candidates, however, it seems “female PhDs have a 21 percent lower likelihood of being matched with advisors who are top inventors than male PhDs,” thereby negating the advantage for many who would otherwise join the ranks of patentees.
Ultimately, focusing on the causes of the gender patenting gap, even in a discrete subset of potential inventors such as Ph.D. candidates, is an important first step in terms of identifying potential corrective actions. For female Ph.D. candidates, knowing that the inventive experience of a faculty advisor could have an impact on whether one becomes an inventor is a valuable piece of information. For those female Ph.D. candidates lucky enough to have a top inventor as a faculty advisor, perhaps being outspoken about a desire to become an inventor will lead to greater patenting opportunities. On the other hand, female Ph.D. students without a top inventor as a faculty advisor will need to recognize that they should be even more proactive in terms of making sure they get inventor credit on innovations that they contribute to. Either way, the more we know about how inventors are invented, the more we can make sure that the population of inventors no longer fails to reflect the diversity of the general population.
Please feel free to send comments or questions to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter: @gkroub. Any topic suggestions or thoughts are most welcome.
Gaston Kroub lives in Brooklyn and is a founding partner of Kroub, Silbersher & Kolmykov PLLC, an intellectual property litigation boutique, and Markman Advisors LLC, a leading consultancy on patent issues for the investment community. Gaston’s practice focuses on intellectual property litigation and related counseling, with a strong focus on patent matters. You can reach him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter: @gkroub.