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International Women’s Day: Reject the norm, say IP leaders

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On International Women’s Day, sources from across Europe discuss how workplaces can overcome gender bias, and share examples of everyday sexism

Women in the workplace shouldn’t accept or follow expected or imposed norms in what remains a male-driven society, say senior intellectual property leaders on International Women’s Day.

Sources across Europe, many of whom occupy senior or leadership roles in their organisations, say the first step for businesses – the ones that want to change for the better – is to overcome gender bias. But they note that this bias, whether conscious or subconscious, remains far too prevalent.

Other sources warn of continued poor attitudes towards women in some countries such as Turkey, where they are seen – at best – as support staff for men. These views, alongside outdated attitudes regarding plans to (or not to) have children, continue to affect women’s progression up the career ladder, say sources.

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Break the bias

The theme for International Women’s Day 2022, which takes place today, March 8, is overcoming gender bias. The hashtag #BreakTheBias is being used to highlight the cause on social media.

Managing IP has documented on several occasions the barriers women face and must overcome to succeed in IP. Most recently, we reported on the continuing lack of diversity in STEM fields – an area closely linked to the patent profession.

Sources say the first step for companies should be to consider enrolling their senior leaders in gender bias training and to take chances on women when appointments that would normally go to men arise.

“When women are granted real chances and freedom to raise their voices without fear, you see how creative, productive and successful they are,” says Yasemin Kenaroğlu, who founded her own firm Kenaroğlu Avukatlık Bürosu in Istanbul in 2008.

The fact that the male-dominated world is “not in a particularly good condition” should act as a sign that women should be given this chance, she adds.

To overcome gender bias, however, it’s important to consider what it looks like in practice. To that end, sources have shared their own experiences.

Cyra Nargolwalla, managing partner at Plasseraud IP in Paris, says bias can occur in one of two ways: either a woman is not given a certain type of job because she is a woman, or she is given a role but purely based on gender.

A woman being overlooked for a role that requires lots of travelling and being assigned a more administrative job instead is one example.

Although progress may be slow, some jurisdictions are making a conscious effort to address gender imbalance.

Nargolwalla says that since 2019, it has been compulsory for French companies with at least 50 employees to provide statistics on how many men and women are employed as well as salary ranges and differences.

“This is a good start. It allows employers to become cognisant of biases that they might not have realised existed in their workplaces otherwise.”

She says that a good mentor is also “a wonderful asset”. 

“Talk about difficulties with someone who can provide a sympathetic ear and help you to assert yourself even in less than ideal situations.”

Everyday sexism

However, despite many law firms and businesses pledging to tackle gender-based discrepancies, attitudes remain outdated.

Sources say views on balancing career with family life need to be changed.

Put simply, there is an assumption that women who wish to have children only want to go a certain distance in their career – an assumption that doesn’t exist with men.

Businesses and law firms must overcome this assumption if they are truly committed to elevating more women to senior roles, say sources.

Maeve O’Flynn, partner and patent attorney at Finnegan in London, says she experienced this first-hand when she (while in another role) became a working mother.

“There are still assumptions about the aspirations of women once they become parents that are not made about men when they become parents,” she says.

It seems this is a problem that spans jurisdictions.

Cassandra Derham, associate director of IP at travel software company Amadeus in France, reveals she was asked during a job interview when she was 25 whether she planned to get married and start a family.

Kenaroğlu says the most common question she has been asked over the past few years is how she manages work and family life at the same time.

People often expect a consequence, she explains – the idea being that a professionally successful woman must have neglected herself or her children in favour of her career.

“There is no consequence. We are able to achieve both,” she adds.

O’Flynn agrees with this notion.

Although flexible working took on an added importance when she had children, she still yearned for professional challenges.

She says: “We often place working mothers on a mum track, assuming that they just want a quiet life, but we are unlikely to do this for working fathers. Breaking this gender bias is difficult, particularly as it often comes from a benevolent perspective of trying to help.”

She suggests organisations can try to break this bias by making sure the same opportunities (whether they be flexible working or management opportunities) are offered to all, regardless of gender.

But this will undoubtedly pose challenges.

Kenaroğlu says women are still seen as support staff in many workplaces, particularly in her native Turkey.

“Men feel more confident and courageous to take risks, to take the lead, to take the initiative and not because they are more capable, but because they have a lot more support from society,” she says.

“In Turkey, the situation is getting even worse. The country is becoming more and more conservative, and men are becoming even more dominant in everyday life and the business world.”

She says that for the first eight to 10 years of her career, she was frequently asked if the firm was founded by her father.

“After hearing the answer ‘no’, the second question would follow: ‘Oh, your husband then?’.”

Subtler sexism

But outdated attitudes have not escaped even those jurisdictions that espouse the diversity cause.

In the UK, where diversity and gender equality are key parts of organisations’ business plans, sexism and gender bias are still all too apparent.

Sarah Kostiuk-Smith, partner at Mewburn Ellis in Manchester, says even though some firms make conscious efforts to improve their gender balance, people outside those firms often assume women occupy junior roles.

She says a colleague once arrived for a job interview as a trainee patent attorney at a different firm only to be turned away by reception and told there were no interviews that day. It later transpired that reception thought she was interviewing for a secretary role.

Kostiuk-Smith says there are also more subtle examples of everyday sexism, which are often difficult to pinpoint.

“This can include when an informal chat at a conference with a potential new client turns to comments on appearances and leaves us wondering whether or not to agree to the follow-up meeting.”

She notes that meeting clients for meals and drinks is a common part of business networking and a chance to explain how you can help with their IP needs.

“However, I know from my own experiences and talking to others that too often and especially for younger attorneys, it is not. So, what do we do?”

This poses a dilemma, she explains. Do lawyers pass up the opportunity and let a male colleague go instead or persist with drinks only to realise that was the wrong decision.

“Each event on its own may not seem like much, but together they can erode confidence and lead to hesitation, second guessing, and missed opportunities for women,” she explains.

Derham at Amadeus agrees that there are often underlying concerns women are forced to confront.

She lays out a situation in which a client emailed her asking if she was available to go on a date.

“As all of our emails were monitored, it was discovered by the senior partner, who said that it never happened when they only had male trainees.

“There are so many implications here, but it bothered me that this was seen as some sort of problem that shouldn’t have happened, that it was my fault.”

Reject the norms

The problems women face are clear. But if companies continue to try to break down gender bias, things should at least move in the right direction.

Kenaroğlu has one final piece of advice for the future generations of female leaders – do not accept what is expected or imposed by the male world.

“Don’t keep your brilliant ideas to yourself. Speak up, raise your voice, let them see how smart you are and how successful you can be.”

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