On December 11, 2020, Sens. Mazie K. Hirono, D-Hawaii, Thom Tillis, R-N.C., and Christopher Coons, D-Del. sent a letter to Andrei Iancu, Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property & Director the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), regarding the gender gap that has long been present in the make-up of the patent bar.
In the letter, the senators state that “[i]n today’s increasingly competitive global economy, we must leverage the creativity and talents of all Americans – including women, minorities, and people from low-income or other disadvantaged communities – to maintain the United States’ place as the world’s leading innovator.” The letter goes on to state that the senators recognize that the USPTO has made efforts in recent years to recognize and start addressing the gender gap of inventors, but that they “fear that the USPTO’s efforts will be undercut by an apparent gender gap among patent practitioners.”
“Women inventors would likely benefit from having access to women patent practitioners,” the letter states, and that a failure to address the gender gap in the make-up of the patent bar “will stand as an obstacle to increasing the number of female inventors and unlocking the true innovative potential of our country.”
The letter requests that the USPTO reevaluate its current criteria for qualifying applicants to sit for the patent bar exam and to ensure that the patent bar is accessible to all qualified candidates.
The letter also requested that the USPTO provide detailed responses to six questions by January 15, 2021:
- What percentage of registered patent practitioners are women? To the extent the USPTO does not currently have this data, do you commit to collecting it?
- Has the USPTO performed or is the USPTO aware of any studies regarding the impact of its criteria for admission to the patent bar on the diversity of patent practitioners?
- When did the USPTO last evaluate its criteria for admission to the patent bar? Please provide the USPTO’s reasons for either changing or maintaining the admission criteria at that time, including any proposed changes considered and objective arguments or data considered.
- Over the past 5 years, has the USPTO received requests to change the criteria for admission to the patent bar? If so, describe each request and the USPTO’s response to the request, including the USPTO’s reasons for its response.
- How many individuals have qualified to take the patent bar over the past 5 years? Please indicate the number of individuals, by gender, who qualified under each of Categories A, B, and C. And, for those individuals qualifying under Categories B and C, please provide a list of their undergraduate and graduate degrees.
- How many individuals, broken down by gender, have requested to take the patent bar exam who did not qualify under Categories A, B, or C? Of those, how many individuals, broken down by gender, did the USPTO permit to take the patent bar exam? Please provide separate lists of the undergraduate and graduate degrees for those who were permitted to take the patent bar exam and those who were not, respectively.
The USPTO has not yet responded to the letter, but we will provide an update as soon as a response has been released.
The gender gap in patent law is a significant issue to tackle, and one that we will address in a forthcoming article. We are proud to have a strong force of female patent attorneys at our firm; in fact, the wider Technology department is chaired by one of these women. We hope to continue to see this trend grow in our field. For more information on our firm’s initiatives on diversity, please visit our website.