How female inventors can fix STEM’s gender gap

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Cynthia Tregillis, Senior Vice-President and Deputy General Counsel, Western Digital & Sabra Truesdale, Associate General Counsel, Western Digital

  • Just as a gender gap exists in the STEM workforce, a gender gap also exists in patenting activity.
  • Increasing women’s participation in patenting will yield higher job satisfaction and headcount retention among women, giving more opportunities to rise to STEM leadership positions.
  • Several patent offices are working to address the patent gender gap, and starting the discussion is the most important next step.

While not specifically addressed by studies on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women, its impact on women in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) workforce is likely to manifest in a greater gender gap than was documented pre-pandemic.

Just as a gender gap exists in the STEM workforce, a gender gap also exists in patenting activity. According to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) Intellectual Property (IP) Statistics Data Center, the share of female inventors out of all inventors named on Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) applications filed in 2020 was 16%. While the share of PCT applications filed in 2020 that included at least one female inventor was higher at 32%, this number still indicates that over two-thirds of the PCT applications did not include any female inventors.

Using the patent process to help close the gender gap in the STEM workforce will benefit not only organizations but also women. The STEM gender gap goes beyond headcount. Women in STEM also lag behind their male counterparts financially and from a leadership perspective. Increasing women’s participation in patenting activity will yield higher job satisfaction and headcount retention among women, which will allow women greater opportunities to rise to leadership positions in STEM, which in turn will help increase their earnings.

Share of applications with at least one female inventor
Share of applications with at least one female inventor Image: WIPO IP Statistics Data Center

The challenge: Few female inventors

When we analyzed Western Digital’s patent programme a few years ago, we discovered that women comprised 21% of our technical staff but only 11% of our inventors. Our turnover rate for voluntary turnover was 10.7%, which was below the industry average of 13% and equivalent for men and women.

Western Digital conducted surveys to identify the factors that were limiting the number of women participating in the innovation process. We learned that women often believe that an invention cannot be patented if it is not perfect. Educating women that perfection is not required to submit an invention disclosure may help increase participation in the process.

We learned that one of the key factors discouraging women from participating in the patent process is a lack of information – both an actual lack (“information gap”) and a perceived lack (“confidence gap”). Teaching female technologists about the patent process will give them both the information that they need and confidence in their knowledge. As a result, female technologists will participate more in the patent process.

At Western Digital, we created She Invents, a female inventor programme, to increase participation in patenting activity by our female technologists. This established mentoring programmes, where more-experienced inventors could share their knowledge of Western Digital’s patent process with less-experienced female inventors. Specifically, the mentors help mentees identify potentially patent-worthy ideas, submit those ideas for patent consideration, and turn approved ideas into patent applications.

The She Invents programme also added women to patent review committees. Serving on these committees gives women in-depth knowledge of Western Digital’s patent process, which enables them to mentor and advise less-experienced inventors (especially female technologists, who might be more comfortable approaching a female committee member).

We also began to track the progress of our female inventors, something we had not measured before. Tracking the percentage increase in the number of patent submissions by women is key, since it indicates to what extent the various initiatives of the She Invents programme are successful. That data can then inform which initiatives to continue or which new initiatives to develop in the future.

Since the programme was first announced internally in May 2020, female participation in the patent programme has increased by 27%. As women participate more in the patent process, they accumulate knowledge (e.g., regarding patent law and state-of-the-art technology) and realize the value of their own ideas. This, in turn, fuels their professional development and gives them confidence to voice their ideas. As a result, the women experience higher job satisfaction and rise within the leadership ranks.

Female inventors to female leaders

Approaches like these can help tackle the chronically lower numbers of women in technical fields. Few women enter STEM fields (only around 33% worldwide, according to UNESCO) and fewer women stay. Women employed in STEM are 807% more likely to leave their field than professional women (odds ratio = 9.07). This occurs because women in STEM move to non-STEM jobs at very high rates, not because women in STEM fields disproportionately move out of the labour force. Also, the greatest attrition out-of-field occurs during the first few years of employment in STEM jobs.

Patents can help position women for longer careers and leadership positions, especially since in technical fields patents are linked to promotion. In 2006, for example, Texas A&M University voted to include inventions in its tenure and promotion decisions, with other universities following suit. The increased market value that patenting yields for firms may also make patenting activities more integral for certain positions or serve as a requirement for career advancement for industry scientists.

What’s the World Economic Forum doing about the gender gap?

The World Economic Forum has been measuring gender gaps since 2006 in the annual Global Gender Gap Report.

The Global Gender Gap Report tracks progress towards closing gender gaps on a national level. To turn these insights into concrete action and national progress, we have developed the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerators model for public private collaboration.

These accelerators have been convened in ten countries across three regions. Accelerators are established in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, and Panama in partnership with the InterAmerican Development Bank in Latin America and the Caribbean, Egypt and Jordan in the Middle East and North Africa, and Kazakhstan in Central Asia.

All Country Accelerators, along with Knowledge Partner countries demonstrating global leadership in closing gender gaps, are part of a wider ecosystem, the Global Learning Network, that facilitates exchange of insights and experiences through the Forum’s platform.

In 2019 Egypt became the first country in the Middle East and Africa to launch a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator. While more women than men are now enrolled in university, women represent only a little over a third of professional and technical workers in Egypt. Women who are in the workforce are also less likely to be paid the same as their male colleagues for equivalent work or to reach senior management roles.

In these countries CEOs and ministers are working together in a three-year time frame on policies that help to further close the economic gender gaps in their countries. This includes extended parental leave, subsidized childcare and removing unconscious bias in recruitment, retention and promotion practices.

If you are a business in one of the Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator countries you can join the local membership base.

If you are a business or government in a country where we currently do not have a Closing the Gender Gap Accelerator you can reach out to us to explore opportunities for setting one up.

Women – even in the innovation economy – earn a fraction of what men earn. In many technical fields, patents are linked to salary increases and monetary incentives. Inventors with patents consistently earn higher incomes on average than non-inventors, even controlling for occupation, migrant status, and other factors. In other words, people who participate in patenting activity are more likely to earn more money. Therefore, increasing women’s participation in the patent process can help close the wage gender gap.

By giving women the information and knowledge they need, we can increase the number of female inventors participating in the patent process, and ultimately help the next generation of women close the gender gap in the STEM workforce.

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