Boosting Women In Innovation

October 17, 2017

In the world of innovation, far fewer women use the patent system than men. In 2016, women appeared in less than a third of all international patent applications under the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT), according to WIPO.

And at current rates, gender parity in the use of the System will only be reached in 2076. That’s 60 years from now!

A recent panel discussion on women, innovation and intellectual property explored what needs to be done to foster more inclusive innovation ecosystems in which both women and men can thrive.

Video: What needs to be done to foster more inclusive innovation ecosystems in which both women and men can thrive?

Opening the event, WIPO Director General Francis Gurry said that the topic of women in innovation is an “extraordinarily important” issue that WIPO is taking very seriously. But despite some positive signs, “a huge amount of progress still needs to be made” to achieve gender parity.

Mr. Gurry underlined WIPO’s commitment to gender equality, which, he noted, has become a priority across the United Nations System. He said that WIPO introduced its gender equality policy in 2014, and has since established a network of 25 gender focal points across the Organization. WIPO also runs various programs to empower women in innovation. For example, in 2016 nearly 25,000 women – over 50 percent of all participants – took part in WIPO Academy training programs.

The Director General also referred to empirical work in this area, in particular the inclusion of gender indicators in reports such as the Global Innovation Index, which benchmarks the innovation performance of countries around the world.

The panel

Video: Women, Innovation and Intellectual Property – Panel Discussion Video

Panelists included:

  • Daniela Galindo from Colombia, CEO of Hablando con Julis (Talking with Julis), a start-up that has developed an innovative application to help people with disabilities communicate better.
  • Ines Knäpper, from Germany, co-founder of THE Port, a non-profit association that organizes curated hackathons to develop technological solutions to the challenges facing humanitarian organizations on the ground.
  • Helen Lee, originally from China, is now based in the UK. She heads up the Diagnostics Development Unit at Cambridge University, and is CEO of Diagnostics for the Real World, which specializes in developing point-of-care diagnostics for resource-constrained settings.

Bruno Le Feuvre, a statistical analyst at WIPO, also joined the panel, and the discussion was moderated by Samar Shamoon, WIPO’s Head of News and Media.

 Photo of panel discussion on women, innovation and intellectual property
(Left to right) Daniela Galindo, Ines Knäpper, Samar Shamoon, Helen Lee, Bruno Le Feuvre (photo.WIPO).

The data

Since 2016, WIPO has been collecting data on the participation of women in the international patent system. Patents are one indicator of innovative activity. These data show that women inventors account for just 30.5 percent of all international applications filed under WIPO’s Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT).

But it’s not all bad news. The data also show that the number of PCT applications with women inventors nearly doubled between 2007 and 2016. In the same period the share of PCT applications with women inventors rose from 23 percent in 2007 to 30.5 percent in 2016. “We also saw an increase in the share of women inventors in PCT applications in every region during that same period, which is very encouraging,” said Bruno Le Feuvre. The highest growth was recorded in the Republic of Korea and China, where women inventors featured in 46.6 percent and 43.8 percent of applications respectively.

While this is encouraging, gender equality remains a distant prospect. “Assuming the trend continues, we anticipate seeing the numbers balance out in 2076,” Mr. Lefeuvre said.

 Photo of WIPO publications
WIPO launched its gender equality policy in 2014 and has since established a network of 25 gender focal points across the Organization. It also runs various programs to empower women in innovation and systematically seeks to capture data on the subject in its reports. (Photo: WIPO).

The discussion

So why are women under-represented in the field of patents and more broadly in the world of innovation?

The speakers generally agreed that the low level of participation by women in innovation is a numbers game: there are simply not enough women making their way through the education system or securing leadership positions. This, they said, reflected the general position of women in society. “Women have every ability to compete with men,” said Dr. Lee. “The problem is upstream and not at the level of the patent system.” She noted that in her experience the patent system itself was “gender indifferent”.

Ms. Galindo echoed this view, speaking of the need to break down gender stereotypes which remain widespread. “I don’t feel different about innovation because I am a woman, but I am the only woman around,” she said, reflecting on her experience as an award-winning Colombian entrepreneur.

Ms. Knäpper cautioned against focusing too narrowly on patents as the sole measure of innovative activity. She said that a broader view was necessary to fully understand what drives women to participate (or not) in innovation. Noting that the publication of scientific papers is another measure of innovation, she said that in physics, for example, many women were publishing papers, although this varied from country to country. She said that in her work with THE Port, which favors the less traditional, open-source approach to innovation, women’s participation was very high – in some hackathons exceeding that of men by a ratio of 60:40.

Dr. Lee noted that biology played an undeniable role in influencing women’s participation in innovation. “By nature and design,” she said, women bear children and have to take time off work to have babies and look after them. “That makes it very difficult for them to maintain their career path.”

For this reason, she noted, it is important for employers and colleagues alike to support women during their childbearing years by offering more flexible working arrangements and affordable child-care facilities. “This is not about women’s lib. It has to do with capturing the talent of women that society is losing out on if we don’t do this,” she said.

Developing innovation ecosystems in which women can thrive

What then can be done to ensure that more girls and young women participate in innovation ecosystems?

Breaking gender stereotypes. The panelists generally agreed on the need to tackle gender bias. Promoting innovation among women starts in childhood. “It starts with the family,” and education, Ms. Galindo said, urging parents not to put limitations on their children even in terms of the toys they play with. She called on governments to actively challenge gender stereotypes through public education and outreach initiatives. “Without social promotion to stop stereotypes we will not see change,” she said.

Ms. Knäpper noted that gender roles are becoming more fluid and family models are changing in many parts of the world.  Institutions, she said, need to adapt to this reality to ensure a better work-life balance.

The panelists also highlighted the importance of using gender-inclusive language to help change unconscious gender biases.

A numbers game. Dr. Lee suggested that the key to gender balance is to ensure that “women are represented in equal proportion at all levels.” She noted that within her own group, 62 percent of the patents granted are held by women inventors. “I didn’t do anything in particular. I simply didn’t have women at lower levels just executing. Women are as capable as men in deciding which experiments to do, and are natural inventors.”

 Photo of panel discussion on women, innovation and intellectual property
Participants called on governments around the world to implement policies to support women in innovation to ensure society benefits from the considerable talents of women and men alike. (Photo: WIPO).
Risk tolerance. But are women, in general, more risk averse?

Many women “never leave a secure career in academia to undertake a venture that would put their family at risk,” noted Olga Spasic from WIPO. She said that even when women obtain a patent they are often not involved in the commercialization of their invention. WIPO recently commissioned studies in the Philippines and Sri Lanka to better understand the reasons for this.

Business is risky. The reality is that innovation and its commercialization are risky ventures for everyone. “Spin-offs are difficult for everybody,” said Ruth Lockward, Director General of the Office of Industrial Property of the Dominican Republic, noting that like all inventors, women need to ensure their inventions have commercial value. She spoke of the various ways authorities in her country are promoting innovation and STEM subjects, with a strong response from young girls. She also noted, however, that given the challenges they face, developing countries need to target women and men equally, and called on national IP offices to raise awareness among policymakers in government about the economic importance of innovation.

Better outreach. The panel and members of the audience called on the governments of WIPO member states to redouble their efforts to support women in innovation.

Ms. Galindo highlighted the need for more information about how small companies can use IP rights to protect and advance their business interests.

Ms. Knäpper suggested more needed to be done to change perceptions among women about the IP system. She also urged policymakers to take a broader view of the mechanisms that could be used to promote innovation and its use, pointing in particular to the potential of blockchain technology and smart contracts.

Ms. Mercy Kyomugasho Kainobwisho, Director of Intellectual Property at the Uganda Registration Services Bureau, noted that her country is actively promoting women inventors and their use of IP. She called on WIPO member states to take the issue seriously to ensure offices promote the role of women in innovation and business.

More flexible working arrangements. But innovation is not just about coming up with new technologies; it is also about developing new ways to collaborate, work and do business. The panel said that more flexible working arrangements for women would enable them to continue to contribute during their childbearing years. The availability of options to work part-time or flexible hours, job-sharing and affordable childcare would create broader benefits for the whole workforce, they said. As Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg, Director of African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD), observed, by creating a work culture that caters to the needs of women inventors, an institution by default also caters to the needs of other innovators.

A special fund to help small companies defend their IP rights. Dr. Lee also proposed setting up a fund to help small companies defend their IP rights. She highlighted the need for small companies to be able to combat infringement, explaining that it was a challenge to enforce the IP rights her company had secured. “It is one thing to file a patent to have the freedom to operate and another to protect it from infringement,” she said.

A special fund that small companies could draw on to protect themselves against IP infringers would make a big difference, she said. Monies borrowed could be repaid through licensing revenues or royalty payments to ensure it was self-perpetuating.

Hackathon. Ms. Knäpper urged governments to consider the merits of organizing hackathons backed up by effective business accelerator programs as an effective means of promoting innovation among both women and men.

A call to action. Dr. Lee urged all participants to conduct a survey within their own organizations to gauge how flexible they are in terms of allowing “women to rise to the high levels.” This, she said, would give management something concrete to think about and could lead to positive action.

The increased participation of women in many parts of the world is clearly good news. But there is still some way to go in convincing decision-makers of the broad benefits of supporting women in innovation.

It makes no sense “to play with half a team,” where “only men bring their best to the table,” noted Ms. Kamau-Rutenberg. If we are to tackle the major challenges facing the world today, we need “to play with the whole team.”

And this requires policy action. “Without policies from governments to support women in innovation, we cannot create a new generation of women that can make life better”, said Maha Bakhiet Zaki, Director of the Intellectual Property and Competitiveness Department at the League of Arab States. This is not a question of favoring one gender over another; it is simply ensuring that society benefits from the considerable talents of women and men.