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International Women's Day: IP leaders say D&I not all about STEM

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Sources say women shouldn’t be pressured to follow the STEM field but that those who do shouldn’t be unnecessarily questioned about their capabilities

Most women intellectual property leaders, including those who believe they have had it easier than others, have experienced gender bias in some form or another during their careers.

For example, a Sydney-based senior legal counsel in a consumer goods company tells Managing IP that male colleagues have been promoted sooner than her and a previous employer failed to provide maternity leave payments beyond minimum wage.

And, despite that, she says: “On the whole, I don’t think I have experienced as many gender barriers or glass ceilings as many other women.”

As we celebrate this International Women’s Day with the theme “embrace equity” today, March 8, those statements may seem bleak.

Sources note that the situation has slowly started to improve. But with that, newer problems such as complacency have cropped up – people forgetting that a lot still needs to be done to build workplaces and a world that are equitable, not just equal.

Other issues have also come to focus, such as the relentless pressure on women to bridge the gender gap in traditionally male-dominated fields.

For example, numerous studies focus on the lack of diversity in STEM, a field with an obvious link to IP.

There is no shortage of those advocating for women to jump on the STEM bandwagon, though this isn't completely unfair given that many countries worldwide may not provide equal opportunities to women or the push they need to pursue STEM subjects.

A 2020 report revealed that women held only 18.5% of the research positions in South and West Asia and 23.4% in East Asia and the Pacific.

Therefore, it's fair to advocate that the STEM field should ideally have more participation from women.

However, IP leaders want the world to look beyond the numbers because women shouldn’t feel pressured into pursuing the patent profession or STEM fields simply to even out the figures.

The good fight

Sources want governments and other authorities to ensure enough opportunities are available to those who genuinely want to pursue these fields and reduce discrimination towards women already in them.

Ronelle Geldenhuys, co-chair at the Australia and New Zealand chapter at ChIPs, a non-profit seeking to advance women in tech, law and policy, says people often pick their careers based on their interests and what they enjoy doing and not just gender biases and availability of opportunities.

“While I understand the good fight to get more women in STEM or patents, they shouldn’t be artificially encouraged to pick those streams if that's not what they want.”

Geldenhuys, who is a patent professional and partner at Foundry Intellectual Property in Brisbane, says she was unsure about what to pursue when she was younger and ended up studying electrical engineering because of the pressure to get more women into STEM.

“My story would have been different if there was less pressure,” she says, adding that the real fight isn’t just about getting more women in STEM.

“Of course, remove the barriers that stop women from pursuing those opportunities anyway.

“But I think the real fight is about affording the same status and wages as STEM to fields that have been traditionally women-dominated, such as teaching or nursing, because our society has historically undervalued such work,” Geldenhuys argues.

‘Exhausted and frustrated’

Ironically, those who eventually end up pursuing opportunities in the STEM field must walk the extra mile to convince men about their capabilities.

“When clients explain their technology to me, I have to work a bit harder than my male colleagues, ask clever questions, and press on my qualifications to show them that I understand and that they should trust my abilities,” says Geldenhuys.

“I’m a bit exhausted of having to prove myself every time I meet a new client,” she adds. “I don’t doubt that I may have lost clients over the years who preferred to work with male attorneys.”

Other lawyers have had similar experiences.

Annie Tsoi, partner and co-head of the IP department at Deacons in Hong Kong SAR, says she has worked in male-dominated environments in the past where doubts were raised about her professional experience.

“I remember walking into a board room full of senior male executives rather uncomfortable with the presence of my fellow female partner and myself, and our advising them on legal issues,” she recalls.

But that’s not all.

Women professionals are often expected to be responsible for in-office tasks such as taking notes during meetings or those that require emotional labour, including organising office events like parties and “secret Santa” exchanges, notes Marian Vanslembrouck, associate general counsel at non-fungible tokens service provider Enjin in the Philippines.

“These expectations can be exhausting and frustrating, as they can distract from professional responsibilities and opportunities for growth,” she notes.

Speaking up

Vanslembrouck says several strategies helped her to be more assertive and command more respect in the workplace.

“One important step was to unlearn the idea that I needed to be polite always and make everyone else in the room comfortable.

“Instead, I focused on lowering the pitch of my voice and speaking more loudly and clearly,” she says.

She adds: “Another important change was to stop giggling or smiling when I was not happy or comfortable. Instead, I learned to address issues directly and avoid picking up someone else's work or mistakes.”

But for many women, it can often be difficult to identify the presence of a bias at their workplaces or find a voice to protest.

Therefore, IP leaders say workspaces must look beyond only providing equal opportunities but aim to be equitable instead.

Vandana Prabhu, Bengaluru-based IP head at telecoms company Rakuten Symphony, advocates for creating a safe space that enables people of all genders, backgrounds, and life experiences to share their thoughts openly.

“Employees in an equitable workplace feel empowered not just by having the resources to grow but also by knowing how to use them and feeling comfortable doing so,” she says.

Mindset shift

Sources say that creating equitable workspaces for women would also need a shift in thinking about men’s roles.

Geldenhuys says: “Men need to take paternity leave, work part time, and advertise that they do so to set a positive example for the next generation.

“Firms, in turn, need to support this with clear and progressive policies, normalising equal behaviour, equal treatment, and equal working conditions for both men and women.”

In the meantime, it’s clear what women want – respect for their work, equitable opportunities, less pressure to behave more like men, and for others to needlessly stop questioning their capabilities.

If firms pay more attention to women’s needs, maybe the next generation of female IP leaders won’t have to face as many challenges on their path to success.

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