Remarks by Director Michelle K. Lee at Million Women Mentors Senate Luncheon

Million Women Mentors Senate Luncheon

Director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Michelle K. Lee

Tuesday March 15, 2016

11:30 AM-2:30 PM

Russell Senate Office Building in the Kennedy Caucus room SR -325

Good afternoon everyone! Couldn’t be more delighted to be here in the U.S. Senate, before this distinguished gathering of elected officials, leaders, and speakers, who share my deep passion for promoting girls and women in STEM. Thank you, Edie, STEMconnector and Million Women Mentors for inviting me here and bringing us all together.

At the highest level, the mission of the United States Patent and Trademark Office is to promote American innovation through intellectual property, and, in my mind, that means across all geographic regions of this great country of ours, and across all demographics. As the first woman head of the USPTO in our country’s history (and the USPTO goes all the way back to the founding of our country), and as a woman who has spent the entirety of her career in high tech, I feel a heightened calling to encourage more girls and women to pursue and stay in STEM careers. Today, women hold less than 25% of STEM jobs in the U.S., despite filling close to 1/2 of all jobs in the U.S. economy. Women make up only 26% of the computing workforce and only 13% of the engineering workforce. Perhaps most distressing, according to a study looking at data going back more than 30 years, fewer than 15% of the US based inventors listed on patents were women. At the current rate, it will take another 140 years to balance the number of female and male inventors.

At a time when our most innovative companies cannot hire the technical talent to meet their business goals, and at a time when companies are asking Congress to modify immigration laws to bridge the talent gap, it is an economic (not just a social) imperative that we nurture and develop all of our talent. As I speak across the globe, the message resonates just as strongly from Beijing to Bhusan, from Geneva to Georgia, from Dallas to Des Moines and from Santa Monica to Silicon Valley. Changing these statistics begins by working with today’s girls and women (1) to spark their interest in STEM, and (2) to promote their advancement to their maximum potential through mentorship and training. To this end, we at the USPTO launched our “All in STEM” initiative. As part of this initiative, USPTO partners with Invent Now, with whom we run an annual summer program called Camp Invention. This program reaches more than 100,000 kids every year (girls + boys including those from under privileged backgrounds) and its programs provide hands-on STEM skills, as well as basics on patents, trademarks and even entrepreneurship. The USPTO also conducts an annual National Summer Teacher Institute, designed to help middle and high school teachers better prepare our young minds for STEM careers as well as invention, innovation and entrepreneurship. And we even partnered with the Girl Scouts of America of our Nation’s Capitol to create a patch on IP and innovation. If the young girls learn a little about patents, trademarks, trade secrets and copyrights, and put their innovative spirits to work on creating something, they can earn an IP patch. I was a girl scout – both a Brownie and a Junior --, and the patches I remember being able to earn were on First Aid and Sewing. I think we can do better than that by giving our girls the skills they need to succeed in the 21st century innovation economy!

Internally, at the USPTO (where many of our jobs, especially the patent related positions, require a STEM background), we have embraced mentoring as a valuable tool in engaging and retaining our employees. Just last year we had nearly 400 people participate in our mentoring program, each spending more than 20 hours a year. This issue of encouraging more girls and women to pursue and, equally importantly, to stay and advance in STEM careers is vitally important. The good news is that all of us whether teacher, parent, ordinary citizen, private enterprise, or government can help improve these statistics and increase inclusion and participation in STEM. Which is why, Edie, we at the USPTO commit to better capture the analytics of our initiatives and measure the number of the people we are helping and mentoring. By measuring the reach of our initiatives both internally and externally we can better set benchmarks for improvement in the years ahead. Together we can all make a difference and develop and nurture all of our technical talent whether your name is Isabel or Ahmed.   

As the President said in his State of the Union, the spirit of discovery is in our nation’s DNA.   I believe it is the job of the USPTO to help awaken that spirit of discovery and technological innovation within every American, regardless of age, gender, background or other demographic. Through education and, importantly, mentorship, we can all let more girls know that the opportunities ahead of them are limited only by their imagination. We can be “All in STEM.” Thank you.

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