Guest Post by Kevin Ahlstrom: Closing the Gender Innovation Gap with Guided Inventor Sessions

(Guest Post by Kevin Ahlstrom, Associate General Counsel, Patents, Meta. This post is part of a series by the Diversity Pilots Initiative, which advances inclusive innovation through rigorous research. The first blog in the series is here and resources from the first conference of the initiative are available here. – Jason)

Kevin Ahlstrom headshot

Guided invention sessions not only increase idea submission rates but also transform individuals’ perception of themselves as inventors. By creating a supportive environment and equipping participants with the necessary tools, these sessions pave the way for gender equality in patenting.

Women submit ideas for patenting at a lower rate than men

In 2021, I noticed that most of the ideas I received for patenting came from men. At Meta, employees are encouraged to submit patent ideas through an inventor portal. Women submitted less than 10% of the ideas I received, despite making up more than 30% of the technical and design roles in the organizations I supported. I was chatting with a research scientist about this, and I asked her why she didn’t submit more of her ideas for patenting. She said, “I tend to minimize my contributions compared to others on my team. I sometimes think that the big patentable ideas are for people above my paygrade.”

Another female UI designer said, “We are all often working on things with many other people, and so it can feel presumptuous to claim ‘ownership’ over an idea. Vying for credit can bring up yucky shame feelings in me when I have been trained by our culture to make people happy, to support others, to help.”

I realized there were stark differences between the way that I, a male patent attorney, and many of my female coworkers view the invention process and related work. There are likely many causes for this engagement gap:

  • differences in social expectations between men and women;
  • fewer historical female inventor role models;
  • women may be implicitly penalized for claiming ownership and credit;
  • women often take on the unpaid labor of home and childcare responsibilities, leaving less time or energy for patent activities.

Regardless of the cause, it was clear that I could not rely solely on our inventor portal to capture women-generated innovation.

As my team and I searched for solutions, I initially wanted to hold training sessions for women on how to submit and advocate for their ideas. That’s what the men did – they submitted frequently and argued with me frequently; consequently, I approved more of their ideas for patenting. But why should we train women to act more like men? It didn’t make sense to ask women to change their behavior to fit inside a system that wasn’t designed for them. Instead of more training, we needed a change in our system to meet innovators where they were.

The Patent Team at Meta has been working on this issue for years. Together, we have made large strides in creating a patent program that is equitable and accessible to everyone. We’ve surveyed employees to better understand their needs, we’ve revamped our inventor portal to be more inclusive, we’ve held conferences and forums to spotlight diverse inventors and encourage other companies to improve, and much more.

Our Pilot: how to double women’s idea submission rate with guided invention sessions

A main component of our efforts has been implementing guided invention sessions for underrepresented inventors. Before I explain how to run one, I just want to say that guided invention sessions work. During the months in which we initially implemented these sessions, I saw the invention submission rate from women more than double: among orgs I support, ideas coming from women rose from less than 10% to 22%. Not quite the 30% needed for gender parity, but this is significant progress.

Here’s how it works. We model the guided invention sessions after the 6-3-5 Brainwriting Method, which is a proven way to come up with lots of ideas in an hour or less. Here’s a quick breakdown of the process:

  • 5-7 participants gather to ideate around a single problem. The problem can be anything, but ideally should encourage patentable ideas that align with company goals.
  • The sessions consist of two meetings, each lasting one hour. At the first meeting, participants brainstorm using the 6-3-5 method. This can be done in-person on sheets of paper or virtually using a remote collaboration tool like Google Sheets, Slides, or Figma.
  • The first meeting is broken up into multiple 5-8 minute segments where participants use the collaboration tool to write solutions to the problem.
  • At the end of each 5-8 minute segment, papers are passed and a new segment begins. Each participant can either write down new ideas or build on the existing ones from previous segments.
  • At the end of this first 60-minute meeting, the group will have generated 40-60 solutions to the problem.

Between the first and second meeting, a patent attorney reviews the ideas and selects the most patentable ideas for further discussion. At the second meeting, the group discusses 2-4 of the selected ideas to build on. I encourage as much detail as possible in this meeting, so that by the end we have enough detail to begin drafting one or more patent applications.

In terms of cadence, we have found that doing guided invention sessions once per half produces strong patents, gives inventors something to look forward to, and avoids putting too much burden on patent counsel.

Conclusion: help people become confident and comfortable with patents

In my opinion, the most remarkable result of these sessions has been the inventor transformation. Session participants realize what it takes to generate a patentable idea, and after participating in the process, they are much more likely to become repeat inventors. After attending her first guided inventor session, the research scientist who thought patents were above her paygrade has since submitted 16 ideas for patenting and has 6 patent applications to her name.

Another participant said, “I didn’t know I was an inventor until I attended this workshop.”

Just to drive the point home: guided invention sessions immediately boost the idea rate coming from underrepresented inventors. Participants find the sessions fulfilling and leave confident and excited to patent their innovations.

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Three main takeaways:

  1. A variety of societal expectations and gender norms has resulted in a significant disparity in patent idea submissions between men and women.
  2. Guided invention sessions have proven to be a game-changer in boosting idea submissions from underrepresented inventors. By providing a structured and inclusive platform for brainstorming, these sessions empower women and other underrepresented inventor groups to participate confidently in the patenting process.
  3. Guided invention sessions not only increase idea submission rates but also transform individuals’ perception of themselves as inventors. By creating a supportive environment and equipping participants with the necessary tools, these sessions pave the way for gender equality in patenting.