Weekly take: Women IP leaders must help build the next generation
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Weekly take: Women IP leaders must help build the next generation

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Women in leadership positions must help juniors identify and call out bias, and support them when they do

This week I have been closely following what’s possibly the most important litigation in India this year – several petitions to the Supreme Court of India that seek legal recognition of same-sex marriage.

An argument made by one of the petitioners’ counsel yesterday, April 25, stood out to me – the rights of the minority shouldn’t be left to the majority.

Though the case is unrelated to intellectual property, it made me think about the male-dominated IP field, and how women can help bridge the gender gap by taking matters into their own hands.

This is particularly important to highlight as today, April 26, is World IP Day, which this year is celebrating women’s role in accelerating creativity and innovation.

Let’s first look at some disturbing data that demonstrates how big the gender gap in IP is.

Women run only four of the top 20 IP offices (in terms of volume of patents granted) worldwide. These are the USPTO, the KIPO, the IPOS (Singapore) and the German Patent and Trade Mark Office.

Further, an EUIPO study revealed today that only 24% of designers in the EU are women. According to the research, it will take more than 50 years to close this gender gap.

Surely, waiting 50 or more years to achieve parity is less than ideal – and that’s only for one area of IP.

For those who may still have doubts about the benefits that women can bring to the table (I hope very few people), let’s also look at a recent study by IP Australia.

The office revealed that research teams that are gender-diverse produced more radical innovations and novel scientific ideas than male-dominated teams.

However, the same report noted that women were named as inventors in only 26% of Patent Cooperation Treaty applications filed by Australians in 2022.

More mentorship

We’ve talked about the need for better policies to bridge the gender gap in IP, research, and innovation for years, and yet we are still stuck with only incremental improvements in the numbers.

Could that be because leadership positions continue to be dominated by men? I don’t know if that’s always the case, but it’s a possibility.

After all, only women are best placed to understand the challenges and biases they face every day.

Today, it’s important to highlight what women can do to help bridge the gap or, at the very least, help other women to do so.

A 2020 study of law firms in the US revealed that women comprised 47% of associates at law firms but only 12% of managing partners.

The data makes it clear that there is no shortage of qualified women, but few get the opportunity to reach the top.

It's well known that junior attorneys of both sexes often face criticism, a heavy workload, and are marginalised.

On top of that, female juniors face gender bias and must go the extra mile to climb to the top.

The lack of women in senior positions, both in law firms and IP offices, means the few female leaders we have today must take on greater responsibility in supporting and mentoring younger women to succeed them.

They should also be transparent about how they achieved their feats, which can help more younger women follow in their footsteps.

On the innovation front, senior women in research positions must actively reach out to their juniors to understand the challenges they face, mentor them, encourage them to speak out, and file invention disclosures.

Call out bias

Most senior women leaders I’ve chatted with admit that they failed to recognise or call out bias when they were younger.

It was the security that came with the elevated positions that instilled the confidence in them to speak out.

Women leaders should, therefore, continue to recognise that their juniors go through similar challenges to what they faced.

They must encourage those juniors to identify and call out professional bias or dismissive attitudes early on in their careers and support them when they do.

This could drive a much-needed change of perception towards women in junior positions.

As Ronelle Geldenhuys, co-chair at CHiPs Australia and New Zealand told me, women, irrespective of their position or designation, must hype other women up.

Several studies have shown that women feel more confident and perform better when they feel supported, which is exactly what we need to bridge the gender gap faster.

As long as women support other women, we should see more than just incremental increases in the number of women occupying leadership roles.

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