In honour of International Women’s Day 2023, and to acknowledge the achievements of the inspiring women in our network, Dehns has interviewed Hedwig van Driel, Senior Patent Attorney at TomTom International B.V. to highlight her experiences of working in a STEM profession.


What does a typical working day look like? Do you use your STEM education/ training/ qualifications on a daily basis?

I help manage the TomTom patent portfolio, as well as expanding this portfolio, i.e. assessing whether new ideas should lead to a new patent application and supervising the drafting and filing of these new patent applications. On a typical working day, I will study a few cases and determine, in collaboration with outside patent counsel (and, for more complex cases, my colleagues), how (and whether) to proceed.

I seldom use any physics-specific knowledge, especially not anything I learned after my undergraduate program. However, this job does require understanding technical ideas, not being intimidated by high levels of abstraction, and systematic/analytic thinking, which are all skills you develop when studying physics.


What motivated you to pursue a career in STEM?

It was about half early-childhood indoctrination (my father has a PhD in nuclear physics), half being drawn to a challenge and to the satisfaction of understanding complicated things.


Did you have any mentors or role models that you looked up to in the STEM profession

I can’t immediately think of any physics-specific mentors or role models, but in my previous job, as patent attorney at a private practice firm, I very much looked up to one of the partners, Nele D’Halleweyn, who somehow always managed to put her finger exactly on the crucial detail(s) in record time.


Did you experience any barriers to entry into the STEM profession?

Yes (having to work harder to get taken seriously, sometimes being taken to be a formalities officer rather than a patent attorney), but I have also experienced advantages from being a woman in a majority male profession: people tend to remember me more easily, in my previous job I was often added to teams being presented to potential clients (to avoid pitching a 100% male team), and some prejudices can work in your favour (women are often assumed to be more precise etc.)


Now that you are in a STEM career, in hindsight, did you have any misconceptions about a STEM career or are you aware of other people’s misconceptions?     

One of the subsidiary reasons I opted for a STEM field of study was the promise of more job opportunities. I probably should have spent a little more time considering what kinds of jobs those would be, in particular considering I did not take to research. My belief that with a physics degree anyone would be eager to hire me turned out to be a little naïve.

One misconception many other people seem to have is that you need to be extremely smart for STEM, and that if you ever struggle with understanding a STEM topic in school, this makes you unsuitable. While some natural aptitude is of course recommended, the truth is that at some stage everyone gets to a point where they don’t immediately understand things anymore, and then they have to start putting in the work. If you reach that stage sooner, you will probably develop more robust habits and systems that will be very helpful later. Basically: it does take some smarts, but don’t underestimate the value of sheer stubbornness.


What have been your experiences of working in a STEM profession, both positive and negative?

Positive: being challenged, learning new things continuously, degree can be useful to brandish in defence against mansplainers

Negative: usually not a 9-5, working part-time is still considered unusual (though it’s not impossible!)


What were your first impressions of your organisation from a female diversity and equality perspective when you first joined?

Current company is only 28% female, but that’s not atypical in either patent law or technology-focused businesses.


Have your impressions changed? If so, how?

I only just joined, so no changes yet.

My former company did disappoint me in this respect, however. When I started there was one just-qualified female patent attorney and one female trainee, as well as two female patent partners (I remember doing a head count on the website). After I was hired, however, it took almost 9 years for a next female patent attorney trainee to be hired, whereas two dozen male patent attorney trainees were hired in that interval.

Often, people blame everything on the leaky pipeline, without putting in the effort to actively recruit women.


Are you noticing more women in STEM working in IP? 

There is some encouraging progress, and the situation is notably a lot better in chemistry than in the mechanics/electrical engineering branch of IP, but it’s noticeable in the Netherlands that the increase is mostly due to more women being hired from abroad.


What would your advice be to girls considering a STEM career?

Don’t doubt your abilities – plenty of people will do that for you, and the further you get the more you’ll realize that many of the men in STEM careers aren’t actually smarter than you (they just think they are).


Do you have any other thoughts or comments on this topic you would like to share?

Solidarity is important. It can be tempting, when you’re good at STEM, to consider yourself “not like other girls” (and you may in fact be “not like other girls” in other ways as well). It can be tempting, to think of yourself as exceptional, “better” somehow. But there is a lot of internalized sexism in that, and it’s good to remember that there’s strength in numbers. That’s also why, along with advocating for increased female diversity, it’s important to take an intersectional approach and fight for increased diversity along all axes.


“Often, people blame everything on the leaky pipeline, without putting in the effort to actively recruit women.”


Hedwig van Driel, Senior Patent AttorneyTomTom International B.V.