By Paula Whitmore ‑ December 10, 2019
There’s an elephant in the IP room, and the elephant is called gender diversity. There can be a tendency to over-egg facts and figures so I’ll cite just one here to indicate the scale of the problem: according to recent research by the USPTO, in the last decade all-female invented patents accounted for only 4% of the US total.
Something, clearly, has got to give and the problem is not just with invention itself, it’s in the broader world of IP too.
At IGNITE! 2019, we at CPA Global invited 40 female leaders in IP for a breakfast meeting to reflect on the challenges they face and how they had tackled discrimination and the so-called ‘glass ceiling’ to get to the leadership positions they are in today. The meeting brought together a cross section of remarkable women from law firms and corporates with the aim of fostering mutual support, promoting business and social relationships, and to ensure the recognition of women’s ongoing contribution to IP.
Our panellists, Tessa Bucks (partner at Boult Wade Tennant), Maja Schmitt (Senior Patent Counsel and Head of Global Administration at DSM) and Nadine Stuttle (Managing Director at Duff & Phelps) gave personal accounts of the challenges they had faced early in their careers and in leadership positions, and stimulated a valuable discussion amongst the group about how to encourage greater diversity in the industry.
The main challenges facing women in IP
Nadine Stuttle reflected on the global nature of her work having exposed the cultural differences in diversity. Generally, there has been positive steps made to address gender discrimination in the workplace, but that’s not to say that every country has made the same level of progress. Global firms need to address these inconsistencies and work to bring international offices in line with the expectations of their business.
Balancing homelife and work also emerged as a challenge throughout the morning’s discussion. For Nadine, working out how to juggle the responsibilities of being a mother and a professional means that she must be strict with her time - for example by not responding to work emails in the evenings to prioritise spending time with her children.
Discrimination around motherhood and maternity leave was a recurring issue for the group. One attendee described her experience of being offered a salaried partnership, which came with the caveat to not to get pregnant for at least the first year of the promotion. She explained how her firm had treated maternity leave like a long-term sickness and, when she did have a child, was required to be back at work in three months. She did note that significant improvements have been made in the firm’s attitude to motherhood since then (and in the industry more generally), with one colleague actually making partner whilst on maternity leave.
Interestingly, many of the attendees noted that it was often other women who were most critical of the choices they made as working mothers. Although more women are in work and leadership positions than ever before, attitudes towards women who decide to have children as well as a high-profile career are still clearly lagging in many social groups. One attendee was even exiled from a ‘Mum’s’ WhatsApp group because she had missed a few coffee mornings arranged by other mothers from her children’s school. Shockingly, examples of this kind of treatment by other women are not uncommon. There’s a lot still to be done to recalibrate attitudes towards professional women.
Many firms and corporates have taken positive steps to promote greater diversity in the IP industry, but it hasn’t always been done with the right intention. For example, having accepted a leadership role at a corporate business, one attendee recalled that she was told by their employer that they could finally ‘tick their diversity and inclusion box’. Instances like this show that while it is important for businesses to get behind gender diversity it cannot be a case of paying lip service to the cause.
‘Taking Others With You’
Facilitating greater diversity and opportunities for women can be easier once in a leadership position. Tessa Bucks told attendees that, when she was made partner, she was able to kickstart real change - such as helping achieve a 50/50 gender balance in her firm’s partnership as well as pushing for flexible working arrangements for others.
The idea of ‘Taking Others With You’ (TOWY) on the journey to leadership, whether that be male or female peers, is fundamental to creating a more diverse workforce.
A point of much debate amongst our attendees was, though, that a lack of confidence and a tendency to be quiet about their contributions can be a major barrier to many women’s professional progress. This can lead to them being overlooked for promotions or other opportunities. The panel noted that it’s the role of female leaders to act as mentors in this respect and encourage people to promote their own capabilities and own their own career paths. Maja Schmitt suggested it was important to reassure more junior female staff that they don’t need to know how to do everything 100% before they start a new role (and don’t need to feel inferior if they don’t), but that they should instead be prepared to step up and discuss the areas they need to improve in.
Joan Mill, CPA Global’s Managing Director of EMEA, echoed the need to support other women in the professional context when she said during the discussion, ‘empowered women, empower women’.
Providing support for women can be achieved through the likes of flexible working arrangements, according to Maja. The more flexibility you give as an employer, the more employees are likely to give back in return as you evolve the business built around the needs of talent.
Digital transformation – adoption and impact
Digital transformation is a key concept for us at CPA Global and, importantly, there are far-reaching implications of its potential not only for better IP decision making and value creation, but also for its potentially positive impact on women in the IP industry.
The adoption of digital continues to be slow in IP, though, and it is generally agreed that it is lagging behind other industries. Even in our discussion, some attendees were (perhaps surprisingly) less enthusiastic about the digitisation of processes and still preferred paper-based working. Others, though, recognise the potential of digital transformation to revolutionise the world of work and increase efficiency, particularly administrative tasks.
Digital is not just about efficiency though, it’s also about flexibility, and this is key to supporting women in the workplace. For example, digital transformation has facilitated the ability of individuals to work remotely and according to different time patterns. This has been a game-changer for female professionals across sectors and has enabled a greater degree of balance between work and home life, enabling women to tailor their professional growth to their personal lives with greater efficacy. And, fundamentally, this means businesses retaining the fantastic women they have spent time employing and training, and capitalising on the value we know women bring over the long term.
Moving forward, the group called for more investment in the technology that will truly revolutionise and streamline ways of working, and ultimately enhance the working lives of women and the IP industry as a whole.
To get back to where we started… the USPTO research while acknowledging the dearth of female only inventors did highlight that there has, at least, been some progress. Compared to the 1980s, the share of patents that include at least one woman as a named inventor has risen from around 7% to 21%. This is a step in the right direction. The onus is now on us, as an industry, to maintain this momentum and ensure that the ideas, contributions and talent of women are harnessed right across the IP ecosystem.
Paula Whitmore is AVP Sales Western and Southern Europe at CPA Global and chaired CPA Global’s Women in IP discussion breakfast at IGNITE! 2019, where 40 female leaders in the industry were convened to discuss diversity and gender equality in IP.