The Diversity Pledge: why the world’s biggest companies are driving innovation through patent data

Suzanne Harrison and Allen Lo of the newly formed US Intellectual Property Alliance explain why Google, Meta, Microsoft and Procter & Gamble are among those signing the Diversity Pledge to improve representation in – and the transparency of – patent inventorship data

The US Intellectual Property Alliance (USIPA) is a new IP industry association dedicated to utilising intellectual property and innovation for the betterment of the nation. Formed during the pandemic by Scott Frank, CEO of AT&T IP, the USIPA aims to become the ‘network of networks’ by working with current IP industry associations to help the public understand how intellectual property and innovation impact and improve their lives.

Unsurprisingly, we acknowledge that both are vital to national competitiveness (which comprises economic and technological competitiveness and national security). However, the United States is not alone in this – there is a general move among other nations to sustain and increase their innovation efforts. In the 1970s, the United States was the undisputed technology leader accounting for 70% of global R&D. Today, its share has dropped to 16%, with China surpassing it at 25% and the rest of the world making up the remaining 59%.

Countries and companies alike are recognising that innovation is a clear driver of national competitiveness. They also understand that maintaining or enhancing our competitive status requires a renewed focus on bringing different innovations and innovators into the system. Given that significant diversity efforts have been underway at most large corporations for the past five to 10 years, why have things not improved significantly? This question lies at the heart of the Diversity Pledge and its aim to boost diversity in innovation.

The Diversity Pledge seeks to coordinate information sharing among the corporate patent filers that make up the bulk of US patent filings. Currently 50 global companies in the United States and Europe have signed up, including P&G, Lenovo, Microsoft, Google, Meta, AT&T, Christian Hansen and Ericsson. These companies focus on using patent data to help illuminate who in their company is participating in the innovation and invention ecosystem and who is not. Additionally, firms are using patent data to help spot and eradicate bias in their inventorship decision processes.

Lenovo and Meta release inventorship data

We are proud that two Diversity Pledge companies, Lenovo and Meta, have recently announced their inventorship numbers publicly. Here is an excerpt from the recent press release:

Today, Meta and Lenovo shared their gender baseline data after the first year, with the hope that their efforts will encourage greater transparency of inventorship data by all companies.

Meta’s numbers:

  • Women represented 24.8% of Meta’s workforce in tech roles (see Meta’s 2022 Diversity Report). For calendar year 2021, the inventorship rate for Meta’s female inventors was 17.6% and the fractional inventorship rate was 19.1%.

Lenovo’s numbers:

  • Women represented 26.4% of Lenovo’s workforce in technical roles (see most recently published numbers in Lenovo’s 2020 D&I Report). For calendar year 2021, the inventorship rate for Lenovo’s female inventors was 17.4% and the fractional inventorship rate was 15.4%.

Given that companies account for 80% of patents in the United States, it made sense to focus on increasing underrepresented inventor participation within companies to increase our national innovation activity quickly. Meta and Lenovo sharing their gender baselines will help normalize the transparency needed around inclusivity and will also provide a way for other companies to begin benchmarking themselves against this new set of inclusivity metrics.

Findings from our research

First, it is important to acknowledge that this topic is multifaceted and complex. Diversity encompasses both hiring and retention within organisations and is often affected by decisions from HR, legal departments, executives, managers and employees. With that in mind, success occurs when people define their objectives narrowly and focus on what they can control (eg, tackling diversity in inventorship, where legal departments have control of the inventorship/protection process).

When Meta (a founding pledgee) began to explore its inventorship process, the company found that a focus on inventorship provided its DEI group with a rare concrete measure of inclusivity.

This can become a metric for potential hires to view and compare objectively across companies. It also effectively forces a company to focus on the employees it already has and cuts off any discussion of a lack of pipeline or pathway hires.

Second, there needs to be much more data transparency about inventor diversity. Companies are hesitant to provide their numbers for fear of looking bad or receiving negative publicity. The bottom line is that this issue has yet to be solved and we need to encourage and reward companies for being transparent and open about their diversity efforts. “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” is an applicable sentiment in this instance. Companies need to establish a baseline dataset and then work to improve from there.

The ugly truth is that many of these problems are not company-specific or symptoms of bad management. We have learned from companies that they are all experiencing the same issues, which means that they are systemic and cultural. Through the pledge, we hope to shed light on solutions that work and those that do not.

Bias is difficult to spot but possible to minimise. One company found that by combining patent and ladder data, it could show unconscious bias in how strategic innovation projects were staffed internally. Its data showed that women were systematically being excluded from such opportunities, which almost guaranteed they were not promotable. This analysis went all the way to the board level and immediate changes were made to the R&D staffing process to eliminate this bias going forward.

In 2023, the USIPA D&I committee will continue its work with companies taking the Diversity Pledge expanding our focus to increase diversity in the patent profession and ensuring all inventors have access to quality legal inventorship assistance though pro bono legal services.

We do not expect to do this by ourselves, however. We are looking to partner with other IP industry associations, non-profits and the USPTO to ensure success. While lots of good work is ongoing, our alliance finds that much of it only affects small groups. To move the dial on a national level, we must come together and focus our efforts on a few big ideas that can scale nationally and, if possible, globally. Working together will help us avoid reinventing the wheel and expand the dataset to better understand what is happening.

Our model is simple: identify a need; bring together relevant groups; start a pilot; determine if it works; make any necessary adjustments; pilot again; scale nationally. We hope that US firms will join us to be a part of the solution. The United States’ continued success is at stake and we must ensure we leave no innovator behind.

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