Saturday, March 22, 2008

Gray-haired woman has semiconductor patent - isn't that adorable?

There is something about a woman's hair turning gray that apparently makes some people assume that she spends her days baking and knitting afghans. For example, take the headline of this post by Jesus Diaz at Gizmodo: Grandpatent: Old Lady Sues Tech Giants for Patents, Bakes Cakes with Lasers. Is the article about an elderly woman who developed a laser in her garage? Nope, it's about 80-year-old Columbia University Professor Emerita Gertrude Neumark Rothschild. Professor Neumark (she doesn't appear to use "Rothschild" professionally) was a staff physicist at Philips Laboratories from 1960 until 1985, then joined the faculty of the Materials Science department at Columbia.

At issue are two patents (U.S. Patent Nos. 4,904,618 and 5,252,499) that cover methods for making semiconductors used in light emitting diodes (LEDs) and laser diodes. As Forbes reports:

Professor Neumark is one of the world's foremost experts on doping wide band-gap semiconductors. During research work at Columbia University, she conceived of the doping process that has had a significant impact on the quality of consumer products. In addition to the blue laser, her patented processes to create blue and ultraviolet LEDs are now used in a large number of products ranging from flat screen TVs, computers, traffic lights, instrument panels, as the background color for mobile-phone screens, in multicolor displays and in numerous other lighting applications.
Last week Neumark's infringement suit against Philips Lumileds was settled with undisclosed terms. In February Neumark filed a complaint with the U.S. International Trade Commission, claiming that a number of imported electronics - including Blue-ray disc players, handheld mobile devices, and traffic lights - infringed her patents. The latest news that the ITC is launching an investigation into 30 companies, including Sony, Motorola, and Matsushita Electric Industrial Co (maker of Panasonic) for patent infringement.

So the story here isn't about a cake-baking granny at all (surprise!). It's about a materials scientist going after big companies for patent infringement. Some of the Gizmodo commenters do protest the headline as disrespectful and sexist, but they are shot down because "old lady" stereotypes are "funny". As Diaz argues:
That's you reading between lines from your politically correct mind. I chose to find the funny side of things, and the image of an old lady -no matter her education and achievements- fighting 30 huge corporations makes me smile. It is funny, and the article exaggerates that. Actually, if you think about it, the only sexist and derogatory statement (against old ladies who bake cakes) is yours, who apparently think that baking cakes and just being an old woman is a bad attribute for a PhD to have.
Apparently it's not sexist because an elderly woman baking cakes is a positive stereotype, and the fact that one is involved in a technology dispute is inherently amusing. I guess I just have no sense of humor.

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Anonymous said...

I'm not laughing either. I hope Dr. Neumark steals all their cookies and gives them a good kick while she's at it. As for blogs like gizmodo, I don't give them the time of day.

B said...

Wow! I bet if she was male it would have been something like: Columbia professor sues giant tech company. Because an old man suing just isn't as funny. It is these superficial aspects that are repeated and repeated throughout the media that really grate on me. Thanks for writing this blog!

Peggy K said...

Hsien: It's frustrating that there is often so much sexism on the big technology blogs. Sometimes I feel like I'm sneaking into a boys club by reading them.

Anonymous: You may have something there :-)

b: Yup, because male emeritus professors are to be respected, rather than giggled at.