When it comes to tackling gender inequality, it is not enough to celebrate how far we have come

The lack of diversity in the IP industry was a key concern addressed in an open discussion at IPBC Connect – but while progress has clearly been made in some quarters, the pace of change is simply too slow unless men extend a helping hand and women opt to take charge

Around the world, the underrepresentation of women in the IP industry remains stark. As an eye-opening example, just 20% of practitioners listed in the IAM Patent 1000 are women. Regionally, North America scores the worst (17%), followed by Europe (22%) and Africa and the Middle East (both at 23%). Although Asia-Pacific and Latin America have better female representation at 28% and 29%, respectively, that figure varies widely within Asia – from as low as 6% in Japan to as high as 47% in Vietnam.

In September, IPBC Connect attendees heard from top female corporate and private practice patent professionals based in Asia-Pacific about the working landscape for women in the region, as well as what steps everyone involved in intellectual property can take to support them.

The session, entitled “Women in patents: a roadmap to the future”, focused on various problems and potential solutions emerging from a part of the world that is home to some of the most gender-balanced patent communities, as well as some of the most egregiously unbalanced ones.

The discussion was part of an ongoing IAM and IPBC initiative, which began with last year’s Boston Manifesto, designed to prompt regular and open talks about diversity and gender equality in the IP space.

Speaking during the session, Alexandra Yang, a partner at Fangda Partners, revealed that in China female judges outnumber their male counterparts across more than 20 IP specialist courts. “Law school students can immediately serve as assistant judges upon graduation and later become a judge,” she explained. “As their careers progress, men generally prefer to move into private practice for financial reasons, while women choose to stay with the court – so the latter accounts for an estimated 60% of the judiciary.”

In many places, though, the corporate world is still struggling with gender imbalance. Applied Materials director of IP analytics Olivia Koentjoro admitted that women account for only 12% of the US company’s global staff. Meanwhile, in Japan, just 15% of researchers in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) field are women, reported Yuka Tsubouchi, a counsellor at WIPO’s Japan office. Fewer still are entering the patent profession and working in related industries. As Jane Perrier, managing principal of Australian consultancy ipervescence, observed: “The lack of women entering the STEM field is relevant to how many end up in the patent space.”

One reason why this is happening is the widespread problem of prejudice, the speakers noted. “Views like ‘women are not suitable for science’ or ‘women who work hard are less likely to have a good family’ are still prevalent in Japan,” Tsubouchi lamented.

Expectant mothers are also actively discriminated against in the hiring process. Aaradhana Sadasivam, senior manager of intellectual property at Singapore’s Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory, recounted an experience that she had had 25 years ago in India. “When I was pregnant, I interviewed for a job but after a two-hour discussion I was rejected right away,” she recalled. Female business owners are not exempt either. “Unconscious bias is a thing and investors have been less willing to invest in a start-up if it is led by women,” Perrier reported.

But rather than simply seeing these issues as the result of external factors, the session leaders encouraged women to reflect on their own attitudes as well. Archana Shanker, senior partner and head of patents and designs at Anand and Anand, suggested that many women may be ruling themselves out when it comes to senior leadership. “Everyone will encounter problems moving up the career ladder in the patent field and we need to acknowledge that there will be sacrifices,” she said. “Women are sometimes reluctant to take up higher positions because they have faced disappointments in the past. Instead, we must first be self-driven and tell ourselves: ‘We can do it.’”

Echoing Shanker, Yang pointed out that young female lawyers need to have “the right attitude” when pursuing a legal career: “When I interview candidates for senior positions such as partner and counsel, female lawyers tend to express a lot of concern over the long hours and responsibilities. As an employer, gender does not matter but attitude does.”

But the issue is far deeper than that. “There’s a study that shows women are more likely to suffer from imposter syndrome, which causes them to think that they haven’t contributed much or enough, despite the significance of their achievements,” Nisha Gandotra, patent portfolio manager at Google, observed.

When talk turned to possible solutions, setting targets was offered as one way to achieve clear results. Tsubouchi lauded the efforts of the Japan Patent Office (JPO). “In 2003 the government put forth a target to increase the percentage of women in leadership positions to 30% by 2020,” she recounted. “The JPO has achieved that goal and even exceeded it – nearly 40% of patent examiners are women, which is a great feat considering that female science graduates account for about 20% of the cohort.”

No doubt governments across Asia have a key role to play in supporting women in patents. The Indian Patent Office is considering expediting patent applications filed by women, Sadasivam pointed out. However, she continued, IP offices could also extend deadlines: “Expediting patent applications seems to be all the rage these days, but what about delaying them? Even though there’s a tendency for patent litigation cases to be filed once there’s a delay, perhaps the patent office could be flexible and give women extensions to take time off.”

The idea of mentorship programmes was also floated. Celebrating female inventors and sharing their experiences in getting their names on patents helps to raise awareness about their contributions to the field. “We, as senior leaders, must provide guidance to the younger generation and encourage them,” Gandotra said. “We have been practising in the patent field for years and we know what it takes to pursue this career,” added Yang. “As mentors, we can share our experience and how we achieve work-life balance, on top of encouraging young female lawyers to be driven.”

Men should be recruited as champions of change too. Appealing to male session attendees, Koentjoro argued: “We cannot reach equality in the workplace until we reach equality at home. Even if they cannot do anything in their organisations, I hope that the men listening will do something for their families. The future is for our daughters and the next generation. We are facing a world where they are disadvantaged. Not making a change now means that all this inequality will affect them later.”

Much of what was discussed resonated deeply with me. As a fresh-faced, recent graduate who has just started working in the IP industry, I was encouraged by the open dialogue and by hearing men in the audience openly signal their support.

The discussion called to mind many experiences that I had researching the IAM Patent 1000 last year. I heard disparaging remarks from senior male Asian patent professionals about how hiring a female patent attorney is a risk because they may become pregnant. Yet others proudly asserted how their firms had achieved greater gender equality compared to their competitors.

In some jurisdictions, practitioners pointed out that traditional gender roles are being challenged and more women are joining the patent industry. Senior female lawyers also acknowledged that clients are less likely to openly doubt their ability now, while workplace policies have become more flexible.

But simply comparing the present situation favourably to the past is not good enough. As everything from hard statistics to personal experience shows, gender inequality is clearly still an issue – we do not need to hear more about how “things are better now”.

It is especially disheartening to continuously hear that client demand – in other words, a business need – is the driving force behind change, rather than the inherent recognition that women deserve equal opportunities. As the recently departed Ruth Bader Ginsburg put it: "Women belong in all places where decisions are being made. It shouldn't be that women are the exception."

More than ever, we need to pay attention to women and their needs, whether they are in junior or senior positions.

No doubt change is coming, but it will not come fast enough unless men readily extend a helping hand and women opt to take charge. In India and China, for example, many women are increasingly leaving behind traditional, male-dominated law firms to set up their own operations.

With steadfast belief in themselves, women are taking a stand, making a generational shift happen and investing time and energy to mentor their younger counterparts. They are becoming the change they wanted to see in their youths.

In the midst of all this, millennials like me are watching and taking notes.

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