WIPR hears from influential women in IP, including former US federal judge Kathleen O’Malley, about why this year’s World IP Day theme has inspired them to promote women inventors and creatives.
Today marks World IP Day, and the World Intellectual Property Organization is trumpeting the “can do” attitude of women inventors, creators and entrepreneurs worldwide and their ground-breaking work—with great fanfare.
But why do we need such a theme in 2023? After all, as former US Federal Circuit Judge Kathleen O’Malley tells WIPR, “women have pioneered some of the greatest and most influential inventions in history”.
Take Anna Connelly, who back in 1887 patented the first steel exterior fire escape, a device that has undoubtedly saved countless lives.
Fast forward more than 50 years later, and you could find silver screen star Hedy Lamarr developing frequency hopping technology in between film takes. Her aim? To help Allied forces prevent their radio guidance system from being tracked or jammed by the Nazis.
While her invention was actually never used during the war, the principles of this work were later incorporated into Bluetooth and GPS technology. Yet, Lamarr was only inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame and given the well-deserved sobriquet, ‘the mother of Wi-Fi’ in 2014—more than a decade after her death.
And in 1971, Evelyn Berezin revolutionised business and technology when she devised the first ever computer based word processor.
In an interview with WIPR, Judge O’Malley, who now serves as a board member for the Council for Innovation Promotion, explored the lack of historical attention given to female inventors.
This is a wrong, she adds, that she has been personally affected by.
“My mother was a chemist, and she worked for the government. And she invented a couple of important things during World War II, including coatings for pup tents,” she explains.
“But she wasn't even listed on the patents. And at the time, she didn't think anything of it, after being told: we need to put these men and the government on the patent. But they were her inventions. She later talked about it when she said she didn't even realise at the time how awful it was.”
While O’Malley praises WIPO’s focus on promoting greater inclusivity in the global IP system, she also notes that this need—136 years after Connelly’s life-saving invention—is “deeply frustrating”.
“I actually gave a speech at my alma mater back in 1995. And the reason they picked me to give the commencement address was because it was the ‘year of the woman’, and the aim was to address that women were still lagging behind in many areas,” she reflects.
“Yet, here we are, almost 20 years later, still recognising this gap, so it's frustrating. But, at least, maybe it will get a little more attention this time around.”
And it certainly needs attention. According to the US Patent and Trademark Office, women still account for a mere 13%, or one in eight, of all inventor-patentees in the US— and women are more likely to be listed as inventors on mixed-gender inventor teams.
A 2022 study released by the European Patent Office (EPO) found the same dismal statistic in Europe. Based on the percentage of women inventors named in all patent applications to the EPO from 1978 until 2019, the study highlights that the women inventor rate in Europe has only limped upwards by 2% since the late 1970s.
As the clamour for progress grows, WIPR asked some leading women in IP for their insights and the one thing they will focus on for the next year that fits the theme of ‘Women and IP: Accelerating innovation and creativity’.
‘FIGHT EVERY REJECTION AND DON’T JUST ACCEPT NO FOR AN ANSWER.’ - JUDGE KATHLEEN O’MALLEY, FORMER FEDERAL JUDGE, AND COUNSEL, IRELL & MANELLA
“I've been shocked by some of the conversations I've had with young women inventors recently. They talk about how frustrating the whole process of getting a patent is, or when someone takes away a patent based on a legal theory that didn't even exist at the time the patent was granted.
“I plan to encourage women to better understand that rejection at the US Patent and Trademark Office should not be viewed as the end of the line. As women, we so often accept a ‘no’ and assume that that's the right answer from those in positions of authority. But I tell women that every man goes back and says, ‘I'm going to fight this rejection.' So, I will say: ‘you need to go back and fight as well’.”
‘FINDING WAYS TO BRING BALANCE TO FEMALE LEADERS’ LIVES’ - ELDORA ELLISON, DIRECTOR, STERNE KESSLER
“It’s important to take on leadership opportunities that have an impact on accelerating innovation and creativity. But often, when women are in leadership positions, there are constant demands on their time, skills, and talent that are above and beyond what their primary job or role may be. This ranges from heading committees, writing articles, speaking at events, etc. At times, it can be exhausting.
“What is often lacking for women leaders is support for their own growth, development, and wellness. I plan to support my peers by connecting with them on a personal level, having conversations about achieving our goals and objectives, and finding ways to bring balance to our lives.”
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