Diversity in Patenting: Innovation Has a Lot to Gain with Equity and Inclusion

by | Feb 19, 2024 | Articles, Patents

The importance and profitability of diversity are already well-known by companies. Research conducted by McKinsey & Company shows that in 2019 companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams were 25% more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile.

However, when we look at diversity in the patent sphere, a report published by the World Intellectual Property Office (WIPO) showed that, in 2021, women accounted for only 16.5% of all inventors listed in Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) applications. When looking at the world’s geographical regions, Latin America and the Caribbean region are slightly better (22.9%), having the largest proportion of women among PCT inventors, followed by Asia (17.3%), North America (16.4%), Europe (14.8%), Oceania (14.1%) and Africa (12.3%). Still, these numbers are far from ideal.

Unfortunately, inventorship is not the only field affected by the lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the patent environment. Although we do not have global numbers about attorneys and agents working with patents, data from the American Bar Association show that, in the United States, only 22% of registered patent attorneys and patent agents are women, only 6.5% are racially diverse, and just 1.7% of registered patent attorneys and patent agents are racially diverse women.

Considering the numbers and the results of McKinsey’s research, we can conclude that substantial profitability is not being realized. It is important to note that McKinsey’s research was focused on gender diversity and ethnic and cultural diversity in corporate leadership, which does not reflect all the plurality of diversity. Thus, the potential for companies to gain from broader diversity initiatives is even higher.

Global Initiatives
In 2021, several companies started a new initiative based on growing awareness regarding the relevance of diversity in innovation. Named the Diversity Pledge, this involved a commitment to understand and address the issue of underrepresented inventors. It was an example of an action of Increasing Diversity in Innovation (IDII), where companies are pledgees supported by law firms and non-tech companies. IDII, together with the United States Intellectual Property Alliance, and the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), through the Council for Inclusive Innovation – CI2, organized the 2nd Annual Conference in August 2023, discussing best practices in professions to increase Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility (DEIA) in innovation and inventorship ecosystem.

Big tech companies concerned about diversity in innovation, like Meta, Google, and Microsoft, also created in 2021 the Advancing Diversity Across Patent Teams (ADAPT) initiative, a group focused on increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion within the patent professions. In that regard, for example, Meta partnered with the National Council for Patent Practicum (NCPP), a U.S. nonprofit organization, to provide free training to women and minorities on how to draft and prosecute patent applications before the USPTO, and also implemented a so called ´hybrid brainstorming´ to eliminate bias issues from traditional patent brainstorming processes and to increase inventor diversity. In hybrid brainstorming, participants can anonymously and individually showcase their solutions to technical problems. This restricts the focus to the merits of each idea, minimizing implicit bias due to gender, race, or ethnicity. It also empowers the employees to present their ideas without fear of judgment and regardless of seniority level.

Brazilian Overview
In Brazil, the article “The Presence of Women in Patenting Activities in Brazil (1996-2017)”, from 2021, revealed that the proportion of women among all inventors in patents reached 19% from 2011 to 2015. The authors mentioned that there is a broad consensus on the unexplored potential of contributions by female scientists and engineers to the development of technologies in Brazil, and in the case of patenting activity, Brazilian gender inequality follows the worldwide trend, wherein the increase in female participation has been slow.

On the other hand, Brazil has companies and universities collecting good results on innovation by way of promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion. Among the biggest Brazilian patent filers in Brazil in 2022, there are four good examples: 1) The Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) found that, between 2017 and 2021, 87% of patent applications filed by the institution had at least one woman listed among the inventors; 2) Petrobras, one of the biggest petroleum companies in the world, has been a signatory of the UN global pact since 2003, and last year (2023) created an area dedicated to diversity, equity, and inclusion management; 3) CNH Industrial, a company specialized in equipment and services for agriculture and construction, received prizes in recognition of good practices in promoting diversity and inclusion in recent years; and 4) The Brazilian factory of Stellantis (FCA Group) is one of the most technological and prosperous in the world, and the global head of the production system, a Brazilian woman, sees that the success of this unit is directly linked to the diversity of the employees.

From my own perspective, reflecting on my time studying engineering at university, I found there was a failure to capitalize on important human contributions due to environments where leadership was predominantly white and male. When I started working with patents and innovation in a place with gender equity, inspiring female leaders, and opportunities to interact with people having different backgrounds and points of view, it became clear that we are still missing valuable contributions in places without diversity. The research and studies presented above demonstrate and measure the loss in profitability and the magnitude of the lack of diversity in innovation and the patent domain.

Looking Forward
Innovation includes patenting activities, and diversity must not only be a part of that, but embraced in this sphere. Initiatives in this area are just beginning, and still do not reflect all the possibilities, results, and potentialities within the plurality of diversity. Nonetheless, the evidence so far confirms that we stand to lose a lot without a multiplicity of perspectives and indicates the way forward to increase efficiency and profitability in developing technologies, bringing benefits to companies, society and the environment.


Article published on IPWatchdog.

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