The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office said it is considering changes to its criteria for people to take the patent bar exam, after lawmakers expressed concern about a gender gap among patent practitioners.
The examination—a six-hour, 100-question exam—is required to practice before the PTO as a patent agent or patent attorney. In order to take the exam, an individual must have certain scientific and technical qualifications.
The patent office is considering expanding the types of college degrees that would automatically qualify someone to sit for the exam, the PTO said this week, responding to questions from Sens. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), and Chris Coons (D-Del.).
Andrei Iancu, who stepped down as PTO director with the transition to a Biden administration, said in a Jan. 19 letter to lawmakers it was important “these criteria are kept up to date and that they do not themselves act to discourage applications from women or individuals from other underrepresented groups.”
Currently, college graduates with a bachelor’s degree in 32 majors, such as molecular biology, physics, and electrical engineering, automatically qualify to sit for the exam. The PTO said one potential change was to accept master’s and doctoral degrees in those subjects.
The agency is also considering expanding the list of degrees for automatic eligibility to include several other science and engineering majors, including aerospace engineering, bioengineering, neuroscience, and biophysics.
Additionally, the office said it was looking at a change that would allow applicants to satisfy PTO requirements if they had taken a combination of chemistry, physics, and biology classes, provided that one has a lab component, the office said.
“Other changes may also be evaluated and considered in the future,” the office said.
There are concerns the current criteria for qualifying to sit for the exam are shutting women out of the patent bar. Hirono, Tillis, and Coons urged the office last month to reevaluate the criteria.
“Failure to address this patent bar gender gap will stand as an obstacle to increasing the number of female inventors and unlocking the true innovative potential of our country,” they wrote in a Dec. 11 letter to Iancu.
Statistics on the current makeup of the patent bar aren’t publicly available, but previous studies have suggested that women make up 18% of patent agents and patent attorneys.
The PTO said Tuesday over 1,900 people registered online to take the patent bar exam since October 2019, and that 397 applicants passed it. Of those who passed, roughly 29% selected “Ms.” in the application’s salutation field.
“While these statistics do not show the complete gender data for all currently registered practitioners, this data provides some insight into the possible gender breakdown for practitioners registered in the past 14 months,” the patent office said.