Elizabeth Shuster has always worked in male-dominated professions.
She was first a civil engineer for about six years before deciding to enroll in Indiana University Maurer School of Law, where she gravitated to intellectual property. The partner at Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP has often been either the only one or one of a few women in the room whether she was designing bridges, studying IP law, sitting for the patent bar or working as a patent prosecutor.
Shuster has no stories of harassment or being belittled by male co-workers and bosses. Yet even though her gender has not prevented her from building an impressive resume, she noted it has divided her from her colleagues and hindered her from truly belonging.
“Most of the male attorneys I have worked with have been great and supportive, but you never feel like you’re necessarily one of the club,” Shuster said. “Nothing is ever said to me to make me feel excluded, but you always feel different.”
Other women such as Shuster serving in technical and legal fields may be one of a handful in their offices, unconnected to females doing the same type of work for other companies and businesses. They are scattered at different law firms and in-house legal departments, usually meeting mostly by happenstance.
A similar randomness put Shuster and her professional colleague Alicia Gentile, patent prosecutor for Rolls Royce Corp., in touch with Deborah Pollack-Milgate, partner at Barnes & Thornburg LLP. Now the three are trying to remove the happenstance and create a forum where women IP attorneys in Indianapolis can meet and help one another.
They’ve launched a local chapter of the national organization ChIPS (Chiefs in Intellectual Property). At a kickoff reception April 27, about 30 women came together to network and participate in a panel discussion examining the careers of women in IP. ChIPS co-founder Emily Ward, CEO of Calla Nava and alumnae of Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law, was the featured guest.
ChIPS was founded in 2005 by Ward and six other women who are leading IP departments at technology companies in Silicon Valley. Ward was previously vice president and chief technology counsel at eBay and PayPal. The mission of the nonprofit, which currently has more than 1,500 members, is to connect and advance women working in technical legal fields.
Pollack-Milgate was introduced to ChIPS last fall when, at the invitation of a client, she attended the organization’s conference in Washington, D.C. She was excited at the quality of programming, the depth of the discussions and the caliber of women.
At the event, she also learned about the effort to expand. She returned home to Indiana and began helping to establish a ChIPS chapter in central Indiana, one of the first in the Midwest.
Pollack-Milgate, Shuster and Gentile see the Indiana chapter as benefiting the national group by bringing in women from a different technology sector than what is present on the East and West coasts. Computer-based companies such as Google, Facebook and Oracle are headquartered in California while Indiana is home to pharmaceutical labs, medical device manufacturers, aerospace companies and engine makers.
“We have a breadth that I think they don’t have if you’re just on the two coasts,” Pollack-Milgate said. “They won’t refer to us as a flyover state anymore.”
A list of words
Before she heard of ChIPS, Shuster had the idea of starting a group for Indianapolis women in IP. She saw a need for a professional organization where female technology attorneys could network, find mentors and discuss career options. Shuster recruited Gentile, and together the two hosted a pair of events where someone mentioned ChIPS.
Shuster subsequently emailed ChIPS and the national organization directed her to Pollack-Milgate.
A patent litigator, Pollack-Milgate got into the practice area when Barnes & Thornburg asked if she would be interested in interviewing for a position in the intellectual property department. She, just like Shuster and Gentile, has found the work rewarding because she has been able to learn about the different technologies underlying a range of products from bottlecaps and rearview mirrors.
Yet, she has encountered obstacles from opposing male counsel. She said she has been dismissed, patronized, demeaned and cast as being inexperienced. In response, she has kept a list of names hurled at her over the years.
“When you’re aggressive as a woman, because you have to be as a litigator, all of the sudden you get called testy or something,” Pollack-Milgate said.
Then she admitted “testy” is not the worst word on her list. The list continues to grow with the words “belligerent, bombastic and bellicose” being added by a letter she received last year. Pollack-Milgate sees the description as the result of her gender.
“I do not believe a male attorney would have used those same words for another male,” she said.
However, the purpose of ChIPS is not to commiserate over tough times. Pollack-Milgate explained the local chapter can bring women IP attorneys together so they can find support, gain business contacts, learn of job openings and realize they are not alone.
In addition to connecting with other women, Pollack-Milgate sees a need for the IP attorneys to return to their firms and departments and educate their peers. She believes much of the bias is unintentional and largely the result of having little interaction with women.
“I don’t think most people are somehow trying to prevent women from succeeding in their careers,” she said. “It’s just you have to change the status quo and that doesn’t really happen by itself.”
A sign that progress is being made might be Gentile’s experience as an IP attorney.
She earned degrees in zoology and pharmacology before settling into nanotechnology research. Looking for her next career move, she went to law school and studied intellectual property. Today at Rolls Royce, she works directly with the engineers and other attorneys.
“I don’t see any differences between myself and the three male IP counsels we have,” Gentile said. “Everybody has the same opportunities, the same challenges, the same flexibility.”
The three women are starting to plan other events for the Indiana ChIPS chapter this year that will include programs focused on women just beginning their careers in IP and on community outreach to women entrepreneurs and girls interested in science. They are welcoming female IP attorneys, women attorneys thinking about switching to IP, and law students. They also hope to bring in more members from the judiciary, in-house counsel departments, utilities and universities.
“I think it’s a really good opportunity for women in IP,” Shuster said.•