Women in IP — leaders of change and innovation
Creativity and imagination are universal, and the dedication to use these traits to reshape the world knows no prejudice. Because of this, women have made countless contributions to the advancement and evolution of technology and the Intellectual Property (IP) system that protects inventions.
For World IP Day 2023, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) chose the theme of "Women and IP: Accelerating innovation and creativity." In the same spirit, we take this opportunity to revisit the subject of landmark inventions by women and their footprint on the broader IP landscape. From patentees to trademark and copyright holders, attorneys to IP examiners and everything in between, Dennemeyer champions this vital sector's female movers, shakers and maintainers.
Scientists and inventors – women with and without patents
In the early years of the 19th century, Mary Kies had a bee in her bonnet: how to weave straw and silk together to make fashionable but durable headwear. Trade restrictions imposed by the United Kingdom during the Napoleonic Wars drove President Thomas Jefferson to impose an embargo on goods arriving from his country's former colonial ruler. The result of the Embargo Act of 1807, however, was ruinous for U.S. exports: plummeting from $108 million USD to $22 million USD from one year to the next. But necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention. And with the local fashion industry under pressure, hatmakers and weavers focused on improving manufacturing methods.
It was in this environment that on May 5, 1809, Mary Kies became the first woman to receive a U.S. patent in her own name for a unique method of weaving straw together with silk or another thread. Of course, she was not the first woman on the continent to interact with the patent system. Almost a century earlier, Sybilla Masters attempted to patent her system for cleaning and processing corn in 1712. As colonists, she and her husband Thomas had to petition the British government and later the crown itself.
King George I awarded the patent to Thomas Masters in 1715 but named Sybilla as a contributor to the invention in the grant. On the couple's return to Pennsylvania, Thomas insisted upon having the British patents reissued locally under his wife's name as the state had begun accepting applications. Though straw hats quickly fell out of fashion, the cornmeal Sybilla and Thomas Masters produced with her inventions came to be known as grits, an enduring staple of cuisine in the southeastern region of the United States.
Other women of the 1800s and early 1900s who made even greater scientific contributions either could not or deliberately did not try to secure IP rights. Ada Lovelace was barely recognized for theorizing computer code alongside Charles Babbage until long after her untimely death in 1852. Meanwhile, Marie Curie won two Nobel Prizes for researching radioactive elements – even coining the term "radioactivity" – but never sought patents despite sacrificing her health for her endeavors.
The pace of change
Before 1860, women inventors had only been granted 52 patents by U.S. patent authorities; approximately 30 years later, that figure had reached around 3,000, per research from the University of Houston. That exponential growth is significant, expanding about 58 times. But, jump ahead over 100 years, and the disparity is still great. According to the WIPO's 2023 report, "The Global Gender Gap in Innovation and Creativity":
- Of the 3.68 million international patent applications filed through the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) system between 1999 and 2020, women represented only 13 percent of that total (approximately 479,338 applications).
- If current trends were to continue, it would take 38 years for worldwide patent filings to reach a point of gender parity (projected for 2061).
Of course, these figures are only a very broad indicator of patenting activities and the inventors involved. The research fails to consider vocational preferences and other variables that could affect women's professional and academic choices.
The data is more difficult to quantify with trademarks since businesses and other organizational entities file most trademark applications. However, a 2021 report by the University of North Carolina School of Law, "An Empirical Study of Gender and Race in Trademark Prosecution," found that the percentage of domestic, individual female applicants at the USPTO rose from 23.9 percent in 1986 to 32.1 percent in 2018.
Staying on the expressive side of IP, a special report by the United States Copyright Office assessed that, in 2020, over 38.5 percent of all copyright registrations were granted to women, compared to 27.9 percent in 1978, the effective date of the current Copyright Act.
Looking at such studies, it is clear that the rate of change is accelerating, with scientific and technological development over the last decades quickening frantically. Blunt-force economic necessity will require and incentivize bringing on more innovators faster than ever. And, at a certain point, the realities of the commercial and professional marketplaces – that is to say, the drive toward ever greater levels of production and improvement – will chip away at remaining biases.
At the supply side of this skills-based economy, women are increasingly focusing their educational paths on fields in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). According to a report by the Pew Research Center, 53 percent of all STEM degrees in the United States in 2018 went to women, with a notable focus on health-related courses. This movement toward the hard sciences will take time to manifest in the workforce, but it is a welcome sign for women's participation in the IP world.
Encouraging women's innovation
The economic benefits of empowering female entrepreneurs are clear-cut, but there are also important social and cultural aspects to consider. This could include providing access to training and resources that promote positive values, such as gender equality, diversity and equal rights. It could also involve initiatives that raise awareness around issues facing women entrepreneurs, such as the wage gap or lack of visibility in the business world. Of course, it is the duty of the entire IP industry to pursue and protect the IP rights of all, regardless of gender.
As a part of the year's World IP Day, the WIPO is hosting a gallery of "change makers," a selection of women nominated for a chance to participate in WIPO training programs. Many are inventors or entrepreneurs; some are IP professionals working in law, health, engineering and various other fields. They come from a wide range of countries — Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Germany, Romania, Cameroon, the Philippines and the United States, to name just a few — and from all walks of life. Read any of their profiles, and we challenge you not to be inspired.
At Dennemeyer, we recognize women's invaluable contribution to building and running the IP system we all benefit from today, upholding their access to IP rights and celebrating their success in exercising those rights. Whether you wish to pursue a career in IP or seek to protect your intangible assets, we are here to help women the world over.
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