A conversation with Laura Peter ’86, U.S. Patent and Trademark Office deputy director

Laura Peter shakes hand of student

Laura Peter ’86, deputy director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, meets with contestants from the Collegiate Inventors Competition. Credit: Jay Premack.

Nov. 21, 2019

While women remain underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, Cornell Engineering and the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) are two organizations working for equality.

Laura Peter ‘86, deputy undersecretary of commerce for intellectual property and deputy director of the USPTO, took some time to speak with Andrea Ippolito ’06, M.Eng. ’07, Cornell lecturer in engineering management and director of the Women Entrepreneurs program, about inequality in science and engineering, navigating the patent process, and their shared love of aerospace engineering.

Ippolito: From your perspective, why is the underrepresentation of women in science and innovation a problem?

Peter: Our whole economy has grown and prospered over the last 250 years due to our interest and value in intellectual property. For much of that time, women have not been participants in the workforce, but now they are. It is essential that we get all hands on deck to push forward the innovation in America so that we maintain our leadership in the global community.

There was a recent Harvard study that said if women, veterans and people from other underrepresented communities were to participate in the innovation economy, we could quadruple the economy. This is the real power that we hold, and that’s why women should become more engaged in contributing to innovation in America.

Ippolito: And we know from research that diverse teams are more effective at problem-solving and bringing different life experiences and expertise to the table – and diversity within an organization or team, including gender diversity, is associated with productivity, creativity and organizational sales and profits. There have been tremendous gains that women have made over the past 50 years, but it’s still not at the levels it should be.

What can organizations specifically do to help with the challenges women face in these fields and close that gender gap?

Peter: When we talk about organizations such as universities and government and industry as kind of big blocks with different motivations, I think it’s so important that they actually collaborate and work together. Industry, you know, is out there actually engaging in the workforce to build products. They’re probably the most important driver of the economy. The government can create different policies to encourage women and other underrepresented communities to participate in that workforce, and also provide a lot of outreach and education. And then of course, academia is so important to provide the nurturing from the lowest grades of kindergarten, up through grade school and then into college, to build the workforce so that it can actually engage in industry.

Ippolito: Absolutely. And I also think coupled with all of that is creating role models so that people can see someone going before them and that they can reach out to for help or just understand what that process looks like.

Peter: It’s very important that there are role models available. I also think that women have a perfectionist complex and I remember this as a student. Either you can tough it out and make it or you can’t. But there was always this idea that if I don’t get an A, that means I can’t do it.

Ippolito: Speaking of your undergraduate experience, Cornell’s undergraduate engineering class is 50% women, so we’re at gender parity, compared to 22% in 1982 when you started at Cornell. This is quite rare in STEM-based colleges, but especially in engineering.

Cornell, from the beginning, had this vision of “any person … any study,” which in 1865 – on the heels of the Civil War – was quite a revolutionary thing to say at the time. And I think the fact that we’re at gender parity with the College of Engineering just speaks to that original mission and vision that the university had.

Peter: I am excited and happy that Cornell has really taken a leadership role in promoting women. It is so important, and you did remind me of Cornell’s motto – “any person … any study.” Here at the USPTO, too, it really rings strongly, because one of the messages we’re driving is that innovation is the great equalizer. And part of our job at the USPTO is to make sure that every person has the opportunity to become an inventor and to get a patent if they’ve done the work to do it, and that was always the value driven at Cornell. I’m carrying the flag in a different way, so I’m proud to do that.

Ippolito: You bring up your work at the USPTO, and a majority of USPTO’s 13,000 employees have degrees in STEM fields, which is phenomenal.

Can you speak a little bit more about what USPTO does to support women employees and foster diversity in the workplace?

Peter: Given that we’re under that government umbrella, we have a little bit more flexibility to introduce programs that are more friendly toward families, and that includes women with families. We are one of the biggest teleworking agencies in the United States government, so that you have some flexibility to work out of your home. We also have wonderful family leave programs and those kinds of things. As far as our executive team, we’re at about 40% of women employees who are executives. Patent examiners we have about 28%, about a third of the patent examiners are women. We’re really proud of what we do, but we put a lot of work into it to listen and make things more convenient and agreeable for women to stay.

Andrea Ippolito in a recording studio
Andrea Ippolito ’06, M.Eng. ’07, in the Cornell Broadcast Studios.

Ippolito: Thanks so much for sharing that. Culture isn’t just about Ping-Pong tables and having free coffee like sometimes you see in companies; it’s so much more than that. It’s about creating these flexible schedules, creating these remote work environments, allowing parents, not just women, but men and women to adapt their schedules so that they can create these environments that both have a family but also contribute to the best of their ability at work. 

I’d love to hear more about where your interest in STEM originated from.

Peter: My dad was with Hughes Aircraft Company in Los Angeles, and that was a big aerospace company in the day, and so I was exposed to technology at an early age. When I was about 3, they were launching the first geosynchronous satellites into orbit around Earth and I was fascinated. I was going to become an astronaut. Well, that didn’t quite work out because I didn’t really like heights. But I did love math, and I love science, and that was cultivated throughout my early years and I think that was the springboard for me to go to Cornell engineering school and stick with it.

Ippolito: We have a phenomenal amount in common because my father is a mechanical engineer and mom is an electrical engineer, and they are both in the aerospace field as well. But having those role models, like your dad and my parents, that were in engineering is so important. And I see that with engineering and I also see that with the patenting process as well. I was just speaking with my students and they’re in the process of applying for a patent and they’re looking for role models, people to talk with that have gone through that process.

How can we create better pathways for all of the innovation processes, including the patenting process, so that there are role models to help people navigate this?

Peter: The USPTO, academia and industry need to find a better way to demystify the patent process. It is really, really hard to be an inventor, but it shouldn’t be that hard to get a patent or at least to go through the process. We’re exploring ways to try and bring that kind of simplified understanding to engineers so then they can work with their counsel or work with their academic institution and not be afraid of the process.

Ippolito: What advice would you give to women today who are interested in pursuing a career – whether it’s scientific research or invention – how do they get started on this process?

Peter: Be in the room when decisions are being made, be in the room listening, be in the room learning – see and be seen. And how do you do that? Well, you’ve got to make sure that you’re qualified to be in the room. You’ve got to get your education, you need to make sure you stick with the Cornell Engineering program and make it through all of those really hard courses. You need to get your degree and advanced degree so you’re eligible to be in the room. That’s my advice.

If you have the credentials, then you have more opportunities. Luck favors the prepared.

Ippolito: And with an engineering degree, you’re setting yourself up for that success to tackle any of these challenges, whether it’s getting the first human – hopefully a woman – to Mars or tackling challenges in health care or climate change, whatever that might be. So being an engineer sets you on that pathway.

Peter: I’ll add that being a woman engineer from Cornell means something. It is one of the best engineering universities in the entire world and if you can get that credential under your belt, you’re so much further ahead. I have a great love for Cornell and everything that it has done for me, and I am looking forward to the next generation of Cornell women engineers to take over the world.

A full transcript of the audio can be found here.

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