Barbara Fisher: Helping Girls Find Their Way Into STEM

barbara-fisher-captionBarbara Fisher, Assistant General Counsel, Intellectual Property at Lockheed Martin and a member of the IPO Board of Directors, spearheaded the formation of IPO’s Women in IP Committee and has been a longtime advocate for promoting women in STEM, both personally and professionally. Since organizing the first women’s networking luncheon at the IPO Annual Meeting 2014, Ms. Fisher has sought out programs to help the Association advertise the message that STEM careers are an option for girls. “In my own life, I didn’t know there was such a thing,” says Ms. Fisher of her own road to pursuing the sciences. “I didn’t have a clue until someone showed me.”

Her latest effort to ensure this scenario isn’t repeated was her involvement in an event in May to bring IPOEF’s Girl Scout IP Patch program to Washington, D.C.-area Girl Scout troops. The half-day program drew 50 Girl Scouts from local Brownie and Junior troops to USPTO headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia, and featured both patent and trademark sessions for girls aged 7 to 11. The curriculum was interactive and sought to provide the girls with a basic understanding of IP terminology using real world examples. “It was fantastic,” says Ms. Fisher. “They clearly had a high level of interest—they were very curious and asked lots of questions about what [the sponsor companies] do and about the patent system.”

Despite such interest, girls remain vastly underrepresented in STEM fields, and Ms. Fisher’s own story reveals part of the problem. She spoke with Innovator Insights about her own background in IP and STEM and how IP stakeholders can better engage the women innovators of the future.

How did you become interested in IP and science?

I’ve always been interested in STEM fields. In high school, I always took as many STEM classes as I could. I took double chemistry classes, physics, advanced math, and I loved it. But when I got to Michigan State, my parents said, “You need to study business, that’s what everyone’s doing.” So I did, but I nearly flunked accounting, I could not figure out economics—I hated it. I went to my advisor and said, “What am I going to do?” and he asked me what I was interested in. I told him, and he got me back into STEM-type classes and I thrived.

I actually didn’t know what I wanted to do when I got out of college, and was debating a graduate degree in physics or a related field. After college, I landed a research position in Alexandria. While I was there, I did some work searching at the USPTO, back when patent searching really was all paper-based. It entailed searching through stacks and stacks of dirty patents and writing up search reports for people. When I was there, I met someone who said, “you really could be doing more than just searching for the rest of your life,” and he introduced me to the firm I ended up joining. So, I worked during the day at the firm and went to law school at night for four years. That’s how I fell backwards into my career, but it’s never been a mistake. I get to do it all. I’ve always had a really good variety of engineering and sciences and technology as an in-house counsel. At the same time, I’ve honed my skills being a contract attorney and learning how to manage clients and massive dockets and people and programs. I never was bored, I’ve always had more interesting, more challenging work to do. Especially since I went in-house, it’s been a home run for me.

How did you become involved with IPO?

When I first started in patent law, I joined IPO right away, so I’ve been involved my entire career, whether on committees or later as Chair of the Emerging Technology and Trade Committee. I transitioned from that to the Board of Directors. About two years ago, we started hearing about the Girl Scout IP Patch program that the IPOEF had created with the USPTO and the Girl Scouts of the National Capital Region.

One of the things I have noticed over the course of my career is that there is a lack of women in STEM organizations. There are different challenges to being a woman in this field because the numbers are so small. I helped to organize the first women’s lunch at the IPO Annual Meeting three years ago, and over 100 women showed up. It was so successful that we did it again the next year. Three firms sponsored the event the first year and four the next year so we’ve had a really nice lunch each time and everyone had a chance to mingle.

The event was so successful that finally the Board decided there should be a “Women in IP” committee. With that committee, we really had a chance to make a difference. A natural fit was the Girl Scout IP Patch, and so we partnered with the IPOEF and the USPTO to have this event at the USPTO.

What was the goal of the event, and how do you think it went?

The purpose was to give Washington, DC-area Girl Scouts aged 7-11 the experience of talking about innovation and to help them earn the IP Patch. Using the patch curriculum, we created a program that took girls through patent and trademark sessions and booths hosted by IPO member companies and law firms.

The patent session was led by Caroline Pinkston and Ariana Woods of Hewlett Packard Enterprise. They walked the girls through an interactive program where they came up with an improvement to an existing invention. The girls thought of everything from making it a different color to making it waterproof, and they drew their own diagram about what they’d done. Caroline and Ariana talked to each group of girls and then the girls presented their ideas to each other.

After and between sessions, the girls came out to the atrium of the PTO where there were eight tables set up by IPO member companies and law firms—we had IP-related activities and gifts for the girls. At the Lockheed Martin table we had different artifacts and asked them which was protected by a patent, a trademark, or a copyright. I was laughing because one girl I swear knew more than I did. It was fantastic! They clearly had a high level of interest. They were very curious and asked lots of questions about what we do and about the patent system.

One table had a display of toys and the patent to go with each. Each girl had a passport that was stamped at each of the eight tables. Once they had all eight stamps and had participated in both the patent and trademark/copyright sessions, the girls were qualified to get their patches.

Why do you think girls are still underrepresented in STEM courses today, despite having better grades on average than boys?

The more women we raise to be in STEM, the more they’ll educate their female children to do the same.

My sense is that we just need to get the message out that STEM is an option for them. In my own life, I didn’t know there was such a thing. I didn’t have a clue until someone showed me. So we need to get the message to them earlier in their lives, and programs like the Girl Scout IP Patch are a good way to do it.

Part of the message too—as demonstrated by my own story—is that we need to pay attention to what we’re interested in. If you’re interested in math and science, parents need to facilitate that interest. You can’t force a passion or interest, it’s either there or it’s not.

How do patents factor into this equation?

Patents and IP are a practical application of STEM. Most people don’t realize how practical an application they are. What I like to help people understand is how much IP is in our everyday world. If you think about it, everything from what you drink to the car that you drive, the desk you sit at, is all protected by IP. We’re always embracing that and coming up with new and better ways to live our lives, and you do that by filing and getting patent protection and protecting those ideas. People don’t always understand that the patent system actually facilitates innovation by getting ideas out in the public in a protected way so that you can build on it and grow. I think that’s why it’s important to talk about patents, because it circles back around.

What can companies and IP organizations do better to get that message across?

I think IPO and IPOEF are on the right track. We’re doing the right thing and it’s just going to have to grow organically. It’s hard to force something like this. I’ve put myself on IPO’s IP Speaker Search list and I’ve spoken at universities. We do try to get involved at that level and in law schools so that students understand what their options are. We go to local law schools two to three times a year to talk about what it’s like to be in-house counsel and what our career path looks like. For the younger kids, the Scouts is a great way to reach them. The more women we raise to be in STEM, the more they’ll educate their female children to do the same, so I think that trend just needs time to grow and become more embedded in our society.