The Patent Truth About Women in Tech

Standing before a roomful of Symantec inventors at a recent recognition luncheon, I spotted something that made the event bittersweet.

I’d earned an invitation because I’d filed more than a dozen Invention Disclosure Forms, the first step in patent filing, since joining Symantec in 2013.

Half of the executive team, including the CEO, showed up. Congratulations poured my way. I felt great. The company was telling me, “Hey, you really did a lot.”

The CEO even called me out as being an example: “We’re so excited to have a woman inventor here!”

But when I looked around the room at my fellow inventors, I spied only a few other women.

I didn’t want to be the token example of an achieving minority. I’d rather be part of a crowd of them. I sighed as I thought, “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Women and other minorities have to raise our profile in the male-dominated tech industry. And one way we can do that is through patents.

Data Talks

Patents say you’re creative, confident and competitive. A patent also celebrates your intellectual achievements.

Male or female, you need a certain amount of chutzpah to file a patent in the first place. When you create a patent, you’re saying, “I have a lot of confidence in this idea; it’s worthwhile; it’s worth protecting.”

For women, patents push back against people’s biases that men are better engineers than women. I’m a scientist so I think data talks — and in volumes. Rather than telling men they should embrace diversity and be more welcoming of women, you can say, “Look, women are doing exactly as much as you guys are.” It’s quantifiable. I think that speaks. It says women create the same value as men and are worth the same money, too.

Encouraging people to invent and come up with new ideas is what Silicon Valley is all about. We want good ideas that we can turn into products and features. While the ideas do need to be genuinely new, they don’t need to be grand schemes like Google’s page-rank algorithm. They can be incremental, like improving an algorithm’s accuracy by half a percentage point or making a piece of code run 3% faster. And the ideas can come from anyone, anywhere.

I’m a scientist so I think data talks — and in volumes. Rather than telling men they should embrace diversity and be more welcoming of women, you can say, “Look, women are doing exactly as much as you guys are.”

Learning the Ropes

The first patent I filed came up over coffee at a Symantec event. I’d recently joined the company after getting a doctorate at the University of California, Santa Cruz. My boss, another colleague and I started talking about the economics of security and how contextual trust was.

This is how I explained my idea to them: Consider your log-in. When should I trust you to log in at all? Once you’re signed in, maybe I should give you access to low-risk things, but maybe I don’t trust you enough yet to have access to high-risk things. So I’m going to see if you’re misbehaving with your credentials. The less I trust you, the less access you’re going to get.

It’s like having a credit card and credit score for your trust, I told my boss. As you access high risk items, you draw down against your credit and your score keeps going down. If you engage in good behavior over time, your score goes back up again.

My boss told me, “This is a great idea, you should write this up as a patent.”

He gave me the push to take that first step, which I might not have done on my own. I always thought a patent had to be something groundbreaking. He showed me that my ideas were good enough already.

It took about two weeks to put the filing together. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I had to go through training to use the patent system and had to review the many questions that the patent system asks. I wrote up a draft of it and bounced it off my boss and colleagues. We worked together to get it into the right format and tone. Once we all agreed on the contents, we sent it to our Patent Filter Committee.

That’s where the process gets adversarial.

They say, “OK, we’re going to tear this idea to shreds.” They hit you with a barrage of questions: How is this new? Why will this work? What’s been done like this before? What’s the business reason for this idea? What value does this have for the company?

It’s a lot like defending graduate school research papers, but without the science. For women taught to avoid confrontation, it can be off-putting. But that’s the process and succeeding at it gives women confidence and motivation.

It did for me: Eventually, I got word it was accepted. I was proud and excited. With that, I could see filing as one more way to help build my credibility as a woman engineer in tech. And I kept at it.

Efforts like #ilooklikeanengineer energize me, too, because they break a lot of stereotypes at once. It’s great to see other women who have gone down the engineer path and how diverse they can be. Tomboys or feminine, every shape, size and color.

The Next Generation

A s a member of the Women in Machine Learning and Data Science group, I see progress in Silicon Valley. We held a tutorial meetup at Google recently. Even though they structured the invitations to balance women and men, it was fantastic to walk into a room of 200 people and see half were women, their laptops out, all of them coding. It was such a cool experience. Ten years ago you couldn’t fill a room with 100 women in data science and machine learning.

Efforts like #ilooklikeanengineer energize me, too, because they break a lot of stereotypes at once. It’s great to see other women who have gone down the engineer path and how diverse they can be. Tomboys or feminine, every shape, size and color.

It can take up to five years before the government issues a patent after you file an Inventor Disclosure Form. While that will be a great moment when it happens, I’m not waiting around for it. I’m continuing to file and to help other female engineers take their first steps to staking out territory in tech through patents.

To that end, I was going to be a mentor at Symantec for patent filers this year but then was asked to take on an even bigger role: As our newest member — and only woman — on a Symantec Patent Filter Committee, I hope to lead by example and spread the word about the power of patents.

I don’t have any idea what future career she’ll choose, but I do know this: If she goes into tech, as a woman she won’t be alone anymore.

My hope is that I’m a role model for women who can see my work and say, “Hey, if she’s a really successful inventor, maybe I can do that, too.” And it also means that when they get into the patent filtering committee process there is a female voice at the table.

I consider all of this with my own family. At home, my software architect husband and I are raising our 5-year-old daughter. We can already tell she has the engineering genes, and I want her to see that she can do anything she puts her mind to.

She loves to build, to create and to see if she can get structures she’s made to stay up. We encourage her STEM learning by talking about biology, science and physics. A microscope she got last Christmas from my mom — who also encouraged me in science — is one of her favorite gifts.

We’ve been having fun using the microscope to look at blood cells and bugs. I don’t have any idea what future career she’ll choose, but I do know this: If she goes into tech, as a woman she won’t be alone anymore.

Illustrations credit: Cal Tabuena-Frolli