Engaging More Women in Academic Innovation

Diversity is a key driver of innovation and a critical component of success on a global scale. Countries that deploy strategies to foster greater inclusion of all inventors in the innovation lifecycle will ultimately be best positioned to maximize their gross domestic product and ensure economic prosperity. The US is losing ground because it is not fully engaging a significant portion of the inventive talent pool. According to a 2019 report from the US Patent & Trademark Office, even though women now make up half the workforce, the share of women among all US inventor-patentees is only 12.8%.

To understand factors that encouraged and discouraged academic women’s participation in technology commercialization, members of the AUTM Women Inventors Special Interest Group (WISIG) conducted a survey in November of academic women involved in innovation, invention and/or entrepreneurship. The 168 respondents were at various levels in their career, from entry level to senior, and were from public and private research institutions of varying sizes from all regions of the United States. “Engaging More Women in Academic Innovation: Findings and Recommendations,” published in the National Academy of Inventors Technology and Innovation Journal, outlines the key findings. It offers specific recommendations based on the survey feedback, follow-up interviews with respondents, and the collective experience of technology transfer professionals who work daily with academic innovators.

Key Findings

¨ Almost all of the respondents who participate in technology commercialization efforts reported that they were motivated to do so because they wanted to see their research applied in the real world. Other key drivers included: university policies, the search for additional resources for research and development, and potential collaborators and industry connections.

  • Academics look to their technology transfer offices (TTOs) for training on technology commercialization.
  • Approximately two-thirds of respondents were aware of technology commercialization training programs at their institutions, and three-quarters of those who were aware participated. Slightly fewer were aware of entrepreneurship training at their institution. However, considerably fewer (only approximately half) of those aware participated. Respondents who participated in both types of training programs considered the training to be helpful.
  • Only a handful of respondents were aware of any training, mentoring programs, or other resources specifically targeted at assisting women in the commercialization process.
  • Mentorship was referenced repeatedly in the open-response questions as something they wished they had access to and felt would be helpful in engaging in commercialization activities.
  • Experiences with TTOs were mixed. Some viewed their TTOs as very helpful, while others felt a lack of assistance, or in a few cases, discriminated against.

Barriers to Participation

Barriers to participation were referenced throughout the survey responses and during follow-up interviews. These are the most frequently cited barriers from the qualitative and quantitative data:

  • Lack of training, information, and resources
  • Lack of mentors and role models, those to guide them through the commercialization process
  • Lack of time and conflicting priorities
  • Lack of access to funding to conduct research and development
  • Discrimination – whether intentional or unconscious

Recommendations

Recommendations put forth in the paper provide valuable insights into concrete actions that can be taken by technology transfer professions and policy makers to ensure systemic changes that foster greater engagement of academic women and other under-represented populations in all stages of the innovation lifecycle. Because technology transfer professionals manage the complex process of shepherding research discoveries from the lab to the marketplace — from evaluating and protecting discoveries to commercializing the inventions through new and existing companies — they are uniquely positioned to play a pivotal role in driving innovation. Focusing efforts to engage STEM-educated women, who generally have an above-average ability to contribute to innovation by developing patentable inventions, has significant potential for both short-term and long-term impact.

Recommendations fall into several major themes including:

Providing educational opportunities that are accessible and relatable for women academics, whether that’s at times and locations easier to attend, or addressing the unique challenges faced by women in tech commercialization and providing insights and tools for overcoming them.

Providing relatable mentors who can help guide women through the process. When instructors and mentors are all men, there are no role models in the room; no one who understands or has lived through the unique challenges women face in innovation. It often is not an inviting culture if women are the only ones in the room or the significant minority. Therefore, the educational programs do not provide a female perspective. It also means addressing female priorities for commercialization like talking about the social impact of patentable discoveries over the profit potential.

Getting federal funding agencies to require evidence of a documented institutional Diversity and Inclusion Plan as a weighted criteria on all grant applications

Providing funding and recognition to technology transfer offices that are actively implementing and supporting programs to foster diversity and inclusion.

Tracking various demographic metrics of invention disclosures and patent applications

The National Women’s Business Council (NWBC) subcommittee on STEM, communications team used the information from the publication to create a video that is now available on YouTube. The video really drives home the need for greater engagement of women in innovation.

The WISIG’s next steps will be to engage with policy makers, the technology transfer community, and other synergistic organizations interested in refining and implementing these recommendations. Organizations interested in collaborating should contact Jane Muir and Forough Ghahramani at [email protected]


Article Co-Authors include:

  • Jane Muir
  • Forough Ghahramani
  • Kirsten Leute
  • Jennifer Gottwald
  • Alesha Campbell
  • Megan Aanstoos
  • Tamsen Barrett
  • Jennifer Schockro
  • Nichole Mercier
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