Cynthia Tregillis is passionately outspoken about women’s involvement in intellectual property. As an IP attorney herself, Tregillis is concerned with increasing female representation within IP, especially on the patent side of the law.
When she came across some articles covering the low numbers of female inventors and female appearances before the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), it piqued her interest in seeking solutions. Given her current position as vice president and deputy general counsel of contracts, products, and intellectual property at Western Digital, she was in an interesting position to help.
“I realized that this is an issue across the tech industry. I reached out to our chief patent counsel, David Dutcher, and mentioned that this is something that we should look into,” Tregillis explains. Coincidentally, Dutcher had already been in discussions with his team regarding research on underrepresented inventors, published by the USPTO and Intellectual Property Owners Association (IPO).
“We had a convergence where we decided that yes, this is important, and this is an issue where our legal department can really drive change,” she says. Shortly thereafter, Western Digital’s Female Inventors Program was born.
At a high level, the Female Inventors Program—as explained by Sabra Truesdale, a colleague of Tregillis and one of the lawyers spearheading the program—was designed to quantify current female inventor participation within Western Digital and to increase the percentage of women named on invention disclosures. Spurred on by the dramatic numbers listed in the USPTO reports, Western Digital wanted to take an introspective look at its own statistics. For reference, the USPTO reported that only 12 percent of all inventor patentees in 2016 were women. Western Digital’s numbers were aligned with this statistic.
With this program, Western Digital is focusing on improving this issue through systematic measures. Though the project is still in its infancy and has unfortunately had some holdups due to the COVID-19 pandemic, its first phases are still pressing forward.
“Identifying the root cause is the first step,” Tregillis says of the program. “Once we know what the root cause is, then we can try to procure solutions to improve our numbers of participants.” The program’s beginning phases are akin to data collection and analysis, which will give the team the metrics to discern what moving forward will look like.
From a legal perspective, Tregillis has found working on this project to be both fascinating and a bit of a learning curve. “It’s not an issue that you would typically assume would fall under a legal team’s purview,” she explains. “As lawyers, we approach this issue from a very different angle than our HR team would, for example.”
“We quickly realized that making a human connection with everyone in the company—women and men alike—who could participate in the inventor process was crucial.”
That is exactly why Western Digital’s diversity and inclusion team has been directly involved in the project as well. “We quickly realized that making a human connection with everyone in the company—women and men alike—who could participate in the inventor process was crucial. Once you identify the problem, you then have to uncover the solutions. Some of those solutions may not be as obvious to lawyers,” she says, laughing.
Partnering with the D&I group, to Tregillis, is integral to introducing solutions from a different perspective. She is excited that the D&I group enthusiastically agreed to work with the legal team on this important issue.
“Any company that does not include or does not have a diverse group of inventors is most likely missing out on valuable contributions by their employees,” she says. In large part, that is why a program like this is so critical.
“The idea of the diversity of thought is important, especially in the technology space. All people come up with different ways of attacking or solving a problem,” Tregillis notes. “Excluding certain people—women specifically in this case—means that those unique approaches can be missed out on.”
To build off that point, Tregillis believes that the best way for not only Western Digital but the tech industry as a whole to move forward and tackle this issue is to acknowledge that there is a shortage of female involvement and D&I. “The more that it is addressed and discussed, the more likely that we are going to find a holistic solution, not just for tech but across all industries,” she says.
The timing for these types of conversations, according to Tregillis, couldn’t be better. “I am extremely happy that we are focusing on it. 2020 is an important year for women already, as it’s the one hundredth anniversary of women’s right to vote,” she says.
“The idea of female representation is so important to me.”
As passionate and excited as Tregillis is about the Female Inventors Program, she also knows that support for such programs is hardly a given. She is grateful that she works for a company that gives these ideas and projects a platform.
“I feel very fortunate to work for Western Digital because the legal department is not just seen as legal, “she says. “We are seen as business partners. Having a seat at the table has made my job both exciting and interesting.”
Prior to joining Western Digital, Tregillis was a partner at a firm. She felt as if she had ticked all the boxes—until she went in-house. “I really love that I have been able to see things through, to see projects all the way through, and to know that I contributed,” Tregillis says.
In addition to her internal efforts with Western Digital and the Female Inventors Program, Tregillis is extremely passionate about mentorship and programs that involve empowering women, especially within the IP space. “I have greatly benefited from mentors, and I love to see people succeed and grow in their careers,” she says.
Apart from developing mentorship opportunities within Western Digital, Tregillis is a chapter leader for ChIPs, a nonprofit organization that advances and connects women in technology, law, and policy. “The idea of female representation is so important to me,” she says. “ChIPs has been an excellent way to drive equality and pay it forward.”
Shearman & Sterling:
“Cynthia is a trailblazer in the support and mentorship of women in the IP field. She is dedicated to the pursuit of excellence at Western Digital, and the support and promotion of women to achieve those goals.”
–Kieran Kieckhefer, Partner