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Wise conference 2018: Tackling the female patent problem

Research by Wise found fewer than 10% of patents filed in the UK have involvement from women. At its annual conference in 2018, Wise set out to discuss why this is the case and how we can address it

Out of all the patents registered in the UK, fewer than 10% have women working on the teams involved in these patents, according to research by Wise, a campaign for gender balance in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem).

This lags behind the global average of 30%, leaving many in attendance at the Wise 2018 conference to agree that there must be a cultural issue in the UK which leads to women being less confident in expressing and backing their ideas.

Dimitra Christakou, membership director at Wise, said while she expected this low number, it was still a disappointing result to find in such a large dataset. “It was shocking to see how few female names came up,” she added. 

Although gender is not recorded when patents are registered, Wise found the number of women involved in intellectual property (IP) applications by assessing the first names of those taking part in more than 800,000 UK patent applications. Christakou said one of the 22-year-old male analysts who worked on the algorithm to find these figured was shocked at how few women were featured.

Imposter syndrome, whereby successful people often find it difficult to accept their abilities, is common in women in the technology industry, and a fear of failure and “being found out” often means that women are unwilling to speak out about their achievements – a possible reason why so few women in the UK file patents.

Christakou suggested there “must be a cultural issue that [women] don’t shout” about their ideas, and that women need to “learn how to come forward”.

But there is not just an issue surrounding a lack of female involvement in registering IP, but also a lack of female involvement in Stem in general, which is contributing to the problem noted by Wise.

Carol Arnold, policy advisor at IP Federation, said because of the nature of IP law, intellectual property lawyers often have a background in Stem to understand areas people are filing patents under, and therefore the industry suffers from a lack of minorities in the same way that the rest of the Stem fields do.

But just encouraging women to be more confident with their ideas won’t be enough, according to Arnold. She suggested that those encouraging more women in Stem to register patents and develop innovations need to better understand the ways that women are different to men psychologically.        

“[Women] should be able to get ahead without changing our very nature,” she said. “If you trying to encourage greater innovation from females, those higher up who are working to do that need to understand the female psyche.”

As well as doing more to understand why women are less inclined to study Stem and be expressive about their ideas, Arnold said firms and organisations need to do what they can to call out other things standing in the way of equality, such as unconscious bias and gender-biased language.

“There is a need to set up an organisation to call out that there is an issue there – if you don’t, people assume there isn’t an issue,” she said.

Tackling the fear of failure

Citing a study from the US, Arnold said if nothing is done to encourage and mentor women to become founders, inventors and innovators, it would be between 50 and 100 years before there are an equal number of female and male inventors.

Part of changing this disparity, according to Arnold, is to tackle the fear of failure that often surrounds new discoveries or technologies, and is often exacerbated in females.

She said women need to “know that it’s right that you should be able to make mistakes and that the best inventions come from trial and error”.

These barriers exist across all areas of Stem, not just in patent applications. There are many misconceptions and stereotypes surrounding Stem careers that put women off of pursuing them – and other panel members alongside Arnold said IP law is a viable Stem career that many people don’t consider, and more should be done to emphasise interesting directions people can take from studying Stem subjects.

“There is the worry that we are seeing fewer minorities coming into the Stem subject areas,” added Arnold. 

Young women have said they want more role models to encourage them into Stem careers, and often it isn’t enough just to be a woman in Stem, you also have to make yourself visible and accessible to others.

As is often paraphrased by diversity advocate and president of TechUK Jacqueline De Rojas, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

Helen Wollaston, chief executive of Wise, told the conference: “It’s not just being a role model, it’s making sure that more people know about you.”

She added that teenage girls aren’t using the search term “women in tech”, and so those who are role models should do what they can to be visible and accessible.

“What we all need to do is give encouragement and support, and you need to take yourselves to market so we all benefit,” she told the audience, while pointing out that the government’s industrial strategy shows the importance of continued innovation in the UK, something she does not believe is achievable if the number of women filing patents remains as low as 9%.

Improving accessibility

As well as addressing some issues such as ensuring gender-balanced funding panels for patent and IP applications, speakers at the conference also said more could be done to make the process more accessible.

Cath O’Neill, CEO of SkinBioTherapeutics PLC, said jargon can act as a barrier, and that more preparation and mentorship could be given to women to help them better understand the process of applying for IP patents.

Suzanne Oliver, senior director, patents and trademarks for Arm, said those who work in patents and intellectual property should do what they can to “convey that it is not that much we’re looking for to get a patent grant”, despite many of the rules and language making it seem like a complicated process.

But although these steps are important in bringing more balance to the number of male and female innovators, Bobby Mukherjee, chief counsel in group intellectual property at BAE Systems, said there are other issues at play across the entirety of the Stem pipeline.

He said one of the way to address the Stem pipeline issue is to target young people as early as possible to “explain Stem opportunities are worth choosing” and to “bring to life” some of the exciting options available.

Many believe addressing the gender gap in Stem could end up closing the Stem skills gap that is prevalent in the UK, and in many ways, closing the gender gap seen in patent applications could ensure a more innovative future for the UK by encouraging more diverse ideas.

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