With STEM advancements popping up all over campus and even in New York City, Cornell alumnae are adding laurels to the University’s reputation for excellence in the field. The Profiles in Diversity Journal has recently named two Cornell alumnae as “Women Worth Watching in STEM.”
The two women – Anita Meiklejohn ’81 and Lauren Degnan ’92 — work as attorneys for Fish and Richardson, a globally recognized patent and intellectual property law firm.
Meiklejohn majored in chemistry at Cornell and Degnan majored in mechanical engineering; both use their STEM backgrounds in their current work.
Meiklejohn and Degnan were among the 45 women who received the award in February, according to press release made by PDJ.
“Collectively, these leaders are breaking barriers for women in STEM careers and we are honored to recognize them as well as the companies supporting them,” said James Rector, PDJ publisher, in the press release. “Supporting women in STEM is an essential part of a worldwide strategy to innovate, educate and build a more connected world.”
Degnan has noticed the gender gap in STEM since her undergraduate education. When Degnan attended an orientation event for Cornell, she learned that her engineering class was 25 percent women.
She admitted that while this percentage was “a remarkably high number back then,” engineering “historically has been more of a male-dominated field,” something she sees still today in her work.
“[In] the world of patent law and patent litigation … there’s a huge benefit of having a technical background, like I have,” she said. “We find in patent-law and patent litigation is also rather male-dominated. The editors [of PDJ] saw some value in seeing a woman of my background in patent litigation.”
Degnan added that recently when she worked on a case with a U.K. start-up company, she was able to able to collaborate and connect with another woman in a male-dominated environment.
“The genius behind the technology of this startup company was a women, a physicist,” she said. “She had come up with this truly pioneering invention and had tried to commercialize it. Meanwhile lots of people were likely using her pioneering invention.”
“She said that she knows that in her line of business, women have to be much better than the men to be treated equal,” Degnan continued. “It was like we had a bonding moment that we both had come up in tech fields that were male-dominated.”
Meiklejohn said that her work involves talking with clients who have developed new inventions. The work additionally includes a lot of writing, and Meiklejohn helps more junior lawyers write patent applications for clients.
Meiklejohn said there is a “preponderance of one gender” in patent law. One element that allowed her to advance in her field was that she started working at her firm at the same time as another woman.
“The men at my firm are great, I never felt like I wasn’t being taken seriously, but still it was largely men I was surrounded by,” she said. “It was great to have a woman who started the same day I did in my exact same practice area.”
Her husband also contributed to her career advancement by working part-time, which allowed Meiklejohn more time to devote to advancing in the firm.
“When we had a second child, my husband went to working part-time for many, many years — 16 years — which really helped me climb the ladder in the firm, because it gave me the flexibility to travel, and do other things I needed to do to get ahead,” she said. “Honestly, that was a huge boost to my career. It would have been a lot tougher for me if he hadn’t done that.”
Having a strong mentor additionally played a major role in Meiklejohn’s advancement.
“This mentor who was important to me was a man, not a woman,” she said. “A lot of women think, ‘well I need a woman to be a mentor,’ and in my office, there just wasn’t a senior woman that I clicked with.”
She said her mentor provided her with “great opportunities” and that some women “limit” themselves by only considering female mentors.
“He gave me chances to work on things that were really challenging and he also was someone who was so good at what he did that he inspired me to do my best work,” she continued.
The award has caused Meiklejohn to reflect on the accomplishments of women in her firm, as they have received many awards in recent years.
“We’ve got some great women in our firm who are doing great things and these different awards reflect that,” she said. “We should be proud of it, and we should hold our heads up.”