Remarks by Director Michelle K. Lee at the "Invention: Does Gender Matter?" Roundtable

Invention: Does Gender Matter?

Director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Michelle K. Lee Opening Remarks

November 10, 2015 10:00 AM

 Remarks as prepared for delivery at University of Texas in Dallas

Good morning! I’m delighted to have everyone gathered here today for our “Invention – Does Gender Matter” panel. Thank you Tech Titans for co-­sponsoring this event and the University of Texas in Dallas for hosting us.

I was thrilled to officially open the Texas Regional Office yesterday. It joins our offices in Detroit, Denver, Silicon Valley, and our headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia. A core part of the mission of the USPTO, as well as these offices, is to support innovation across the country. And this includes the crucial component of making sure we have innovators and inventors in the pipeline for the future – across all demographics.

Today, some of the most valuable assets of our leading companies are intangible, such as their inventions, algorithms, processes, designs, and brands—in other words IP. Indeed, the entire U.S. economy today relies on some form of IP. IP ­intensive industries support at least 40 million jobs, or more than a quarter of all U.S. jobs. They also contribute more than 5 trillion dollars, or more than a third, of our gross domestic product. And growth in IP-intensive industries outpaces gains in non ­IP-­intensive industries.

However, this unprecedented growth has not been shared equally. It is important that we understand the problem of this disparity and work toward real solutions to combat it.

As the title of this roundtable discussion suggests, data clearly shows that women are not receiving patents at a rate anywhere close to men. As most of you know, a patent can have a single inventor, or it can have many inventors. It all depends on the inventions described in the patent. It is not uncommon for a patent to have four, five, or even more inventors. With this background, let’s take a closer look at the research.

First, the USPTO does not collect demographic data on who applies for patents, so obtaining the necessary quantitative information is challenging. Nevertheless, all the studies that have looked at this data come to the same basic conclusion: women are named as inventors on patents at astonishingly low rates. 

I’d like to share with you some new data. This is taken from a working paper called “The Lifecycle of Inventors”. The authors kindly gave me permission to share their new findings with you. As part of their paper, the researchers used tax records on individuals granted U.S. patents between 1996 and 2012 to characterize the lives of more than 1.2 million inventors in the United States. They used this data to present the first comprehensive portrait of inventors in the United States by linking data on all patent inventors to Treasury tax files.

Three important takeaways:

1.       That the vast majority of patents go to men;

2.       The share going to women is rising over time, but less than 15% of patents go to women and

3.       At the current rate of convergence, it will take another 140 years for women to obtain 50% of granted patents.

What’s remarkable about this data is that there are no spikes in women on patents when women entered the workforce as part of World War II, or at any other point during the last 70 years.

As we consider the gender disparity in patenting, please understand that patents are often crucial in creating and funding a business. As anyone who has watched the TV show Shark Tank knows, investors often want to know if you have a patent before they provide you with funding. So who has patents has implications on who can get funding for starting a new business. And in this respect, some research also reveals a trend that even when women are named as inventors on patents, they commercialize their patents at a much lower rate. And let’s not forget that being named as an inventor on a patent often represents a milestone in a person’s own life story. 

Having a patent is validation of hard work and creativity and is a significant professional accomplishment. People are rightfully proud of being named as inventors on patents, and they can lead to enhanced professional opportunities in their fields. So the significant gender disparity in who is receiving patents has real implications. It is likely possible that this disparity is related to the dearth of girls and women pursuing STEM degrees and STEM careers. As the first woman to lead the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in our country’s 225+ year history, and as a woman educated in electrical engineering and computer science, I feel a heightened calling to encourage more girls and women to follow a STEM path, and to also urge others to be their champions.

Part of my passion for this cause comes from my upbringing in Silicon Valley. My dad was an engineer, as were all the others fathers on the street where I grew up. He kept our garage stocked with transistors and resistors, circuit diagrams, wire strippers, and a soldering iron. Those tools sure came in handy when he built our living room TV set! Watching my dad take things apart, tinker, and make things inspired my own innate curiosity. It wasn’t long before we built a hand­held radio together. At that time, I thought that building radios was what every girl did. Thankfully, my dad never told me otherwise. That childhood experience—of building something and seeing it work—left a permanent impression on me. And while there was a part of me that wanted to become a professional ballet dancer, I ultimately followed in my father’s footsteps into engineering.

As I continued on my path as a woman in STEM, I noticed that more and more of the girls and women around me left that path. In junior high and high school, my math and science classes were roughly half girls and half boys. As I took calculus and advanced calculus, the numbers decreased. By the time I went to college at MIT, women were in the minority studying electrical engineering and computer science, and later, I was one of an even fewer number of women working as graduate students in the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab. 

My passion for technology and innovation is what led me to later study and practice intellectual property law, to help some of our most innovative companies protect and commercialize their inventions. But as I joined the high stakes world of litigating patents, the numbers of women around me dwindled further. So throughout my career in tech, I’ve often been one of a small number of women in the room …and an even smaller number at the table. And this disparity clearly exists in invention and patenting as well, as I described.

Now let me be clear. I am not advocating for women and girls because I am a woman. I am advocating for women and girls because I understand that we cannot succeed in the global economy with, in effect, one hand tied behind our back. At the broadest level, the mission of the USPTO is to promote American innovation, and I believe this should be across all geographic regions of the country, and across all demographics. Improving the numbers of women inventors requires a long-­term approach, and that’s why, at the USPTO, we have a number of initiatives underway to help. We start early, by reaching out to girls as early as elementary school, through a number of different programs. One of them is a week-­long summer program called Camp Invention, which we run in partnership with the non-­profit Invent Now. We also work with the Girl Scouts of America—we created a patch on IP and innovation! To earn the IP patch, young women learn about the fundamentals of patents, trademarks, and copyrights, then put their innovative spirits to work on creating something. I was a girl scout once (first a brownie, then a junior) and the patches I remember receiving were on First Aid and sewing! So this innovation patch is, to me, a welcome addition. All of these programs are an important part of getting girls and women into the pipeline for studying science and technology. But as the numbers I just described about patents show—we also need to consider how to keep women in these fields so that they can become world­-class researchers, scientists and inventors.

Why is this important?

Well, for one thing, STEM jobs are being created at three times the rate of non-STEM positions. And in the next seven years, the U.S. will need almost 2 million new engineering and computing jobs. This makes it vitally important that we tap into all of the human capital in this country. And this means we need to make sure there are no barriers preventing any group of people from fully participating in this vibrant part of the economy. 

One thing that can be found at the core of the greatest innovations in the United States is curiosity. And if we want to spark innovation, we need to encourage curiosity. I see curiosity in the flesh every day when I arrive home from work and am greeted by my five-­year-­old daughter. Any of us who are parents know that we don’t have to teach curiosity to children. It’s hard­wired into their very essence. It is the commitment of my agency that all inventors, regardless of age, background, or gender, enjoy the protection of intellectual property for their creations and inventions. As I lead the USPTO—what I like to call America’s Agency of Innovation—I seek to empower the curious, and I seek to empower them to innovate. Curiosity, not gender, drives innovation, but I don’t feel we are yet tapping into our entire population’s curiosity. We are not fully using both hands. We do not yet have all hands on deck. But we’re making progress. And as part of making that progress, we’re here today to have a roundtable discussion about these issues and what we can do to get all hands on deck. To have this discussion, we’re fortunate to have with us today a distinguished group of women economists, scientists, and intellectual property attorneys. I’m looking forward to speaking with all of them in just a few minutes. And head’s up – I will be asking for audience questions as well, because you all are an important part of this discussion too.

With that, I will turn the podium over to Lisa Jorgenson, Executive Director of the American Intellectual Property Law Association, and a good friend, to introduce our panelists.


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