Cisco Women’s Inventor Network leads to jump in female representation on patents
Cisco owns more than 25,000 patents globally. To match that total, a company launching today would need to secure one patent a day, every day, for nearly seven decades. While this record of innovation is objectively impressive, our patent total would be even greater if more of our women innovators were actively participating in the patent pipeline. We want the diversity of our inventor population to reflect the diversity of our talent.
It’s a challenge that reaches far beyond Cisco. According to the USPTO’s “Progress and Potential: Profile of Women Inventors in U.S. Patents” report, women account for only 13% of inventor-patentees—a figure that’s far lower than the percentage of women employed in technical roles. When the USPTO report was released in 2020, Cisco was also reviewing its patent processes and looking for opportunities to increase diversity in inventorship.
Our internal reviews led to the development of a patent mentorship programme under the banner of Cisco’s Women’s Inventor Network called WIN++. Through the programme, small teams of diverse employees work together and with mentors. Each team’s goal is to submit an invention disclosure by the end of the programme that will be evaluated by one of our Patent Committees. While at least two WIN++ team members must be women, all employees are welcome to join.
Data analysis has been part of WIN++ from the start. Reviewing 23,000 internal invention submissions from the past 10 years, we saw clear themes in what takes an idea to an invention and have built those learnings into the design of WIN++. For example, submissions with at least one experienced inventor are twice as likely to be successful than a submission with only first-time inventors. That’s why each WIN++ team is mentored by an experienced inventor. We hold a mentor kick-off at the beginning of each cohort to provide overall guidance to our volunteer mentors and resources for them to access, as well as a Webex collaboration space for mentor discussion. While the mentor is not incentivised and will not be a named inventor unless they contributed to the conception of the invention, their experience with the process helps avoid the hiccups that often hold up first-time inventors.
It's fair to assume that the peak of the covid-19 pandemic may not have been an ideal time to start an ambitious effort like WIN++, but it’s actually what Cisco needed in that moment. Because the pandemic removed almost all opportunities for in-person collaboration and teamwork, some thought leaders in our engineering community were concerned about the impact on our ability to innovate and continue our high levels of quality patent filings. But remote work opened up unexpected possibilities, most notably the formation of virtual, multidisciplinary WIN++ teams that were—and continue to be—tremendously successful because they’re able to tackle problems from a variety of perspectives. We set up all the teams with their own Webex collaboration spaces and we’re mindful to match teams and mentors according to their preferred technology areas and their time zones.
First, we have a better understanding of the three Rs of mentorship—recruitment, retention and recognition.
Our volunteer mentors guide the mentees along what is, for many, their first-ever patent journey. Recruiting qualified mentors from within our engineering organisations, who also have experience of our patent programme, is a key part of the success of the programme. Retaining our mentors so they remain engaged and interested in mentoring again and recognising their commitment are both also integral to success. In post-cohort surveys, mentees often acknowledge their kind and helpful mentors, and remain connected with them after the programme ends.
We’ve also learned how important it is to convey that innovation is a challenging and often time-consuming process, ensuring that prospective mentees are aware of the time commitment. We now let mentees know they should expect to set aside three to four hours per week as a minimum over the 14-week programme.
In terms of outreach and programme development, the success and scale of the programme is also attributable to shared ownership with multiple stakeholders invested in the overall programme success. A dedicated group of volunteer organisers from both the legal and engineering organisations meet regularly to plan the programme and address issues as they arise. Engineering leaders publicise the programme in their communications and townhall meetings, and help us recruit mentors by asking their peers to sign-up. Cisco’s leadership enthusiastically supports and sees the enormous value of innovation to the company and the industry. As a result, we’ve been able to build a strong, sustainable and accessible programme that continues to benefit aspiring inventors who want to learn about innovation and the patenting process.
Since the first cohort of WIN++ mentees in 2020, nearly 700 employees across 20 countries have participated in the programme, and 119 of our experienced inventors have served as mentors. While the anecdotes from our mentors and mentees along the way made it clear that the programme was a breakout success, seeing the actual data was truly eye-opening.
Since 2020, the number of unique Cisco women inventors listed on original US patent filings has increased by more than 30%, and the percentage of approved submissions with at least one female inventor has jumped 67%. Of particular note, several mentees have continued to submit innovation disclosures after completing the programme, and we’ve had several mentees graduate to become mentors.
These statistics reinforce that mentorship matters. Investment in formal programmes that increase access to traditionally opaque or inside processes can have a tangible, measurable impact.
We’ve not yet solved the women inventor gap. Mentorship is a productive way to engage women currently in technical roles, but we need more women in technical roles—period. In the long-term, the public and private sectors need to work together to build a more diverse talent pipeline through primary and secondary STEM education curriculum, skills-to-jobs programming, and exposure to career opportunities. In the near-term, we’re encouraged to have found a path to progress, one that we hope continues to unlock innovative potential for more aspiring inventors.
Inclusivity Insights is a regular feature in which companies share stories, learnings, and experiences of their D&I journey related to IP and innovation with the IAM audience. Previous articles in the series: