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How COVID has changed the lives of women in IP

Panellists at the International Women’s Leadership Forum discussed how 2020 has altered their profession, and why diversity and empathy are more important than ever

In past years speakers at Managing IP’s International Women’s Leadership Forum sat behind tables in hotel ballrooms and shared insights on important topics like finding the right mentor, confidence building, and intellectual property strategy.

And while the speakers at this year’s virtual forum did touch on those issues, the one topic that surfaced in every panel was how the pandemic has changed their lives. Panellists mentioned that through working from home, changing jobs, or managing employees at a distance, COVID-19 made them rethink things they took for granted about their role.

Leadership qualities

Kate Swaine, partner at Gowling WLG in London, began her discussion on leadership and building for the next generation by asking panellists how they define leadership and whether or not leadership means something different for the young generation of lawyers starting their career during the pandemic.

Speakers emphasised that qualities such as empathy and compassion have been essential for good leadership over the past nine months.

Victoria Head, head of legal at the Football Association in London, said it is important for leaders to communicate with their teams and understand that while the pandemic has affected everyone, it has not been the same for every employee.

“I think the last nine months have made certain qualities of leadership come to the fore. I think empathy is the strongest trait leaders have shown and understanding that everybody is dealing with professional stresses and strains,” she said.

Work-life balance

The panellists agreed that working from home has several advantages such as shorter commutes and more time with family. The downside, however, is that many employees have found it difficult to switch off and put their computers away.

Judith Garritzmann, assistant general counsel at pharmaceutical company Elanco in Munich, said it is important for those in management positions to encourage employees who are working from home to separate their work and home lives.

“I don’t think women allow themselves to make room for everything and they feel they have to hide their personal life or hide that they have kids. We need to have conversations about this,” said Garritzmann.

Parjeet Tawana, director of patents at Benevolent AI in London, agreed and added that for many women with small children at home, it has been especially difficult to juggle work and family obligations during the pandemic. One suggestion she had was to take small breaks throughout the day and get a change of scenery.

She said: “I’ve suffered from guilt and thought I wasn’t doing enough with home schooling and balancing my own work. We have to be more purposeful with the time we have. Take half an hour and go for a walk away from the computer without thinking about work.”

Diversity at work

Elizabeth Weiswasser, partner at Weil Gotshal & Mangesin New York City, began her panel on inclusion and diversity in the workplace by asking panellists to explain what they have done to help foster an inclusive work environment.

Hazel Thorpe, senior patent examiner at the UKIPO, said that her office has several diversity groups including ones for women, ethnic minorities, and neurodiversity, which is the idea that neurological differences like autism and ADHD are the result of normal, natural variation in the human genome

She told the panel that at first her workplace discussed having a gender group where both men and women could share their experiences, but after contacting staff she found that many members wanted a women’s-only network.

“The feedback we received from members of staff was that it’s important to have a safe space to talk about women’s matters,” she said.

Anita Shaw, patent attorney at IBM in London, said that without diversity her company would not be able to innovate and keep up with competitors. She added that diversity is not something companies should think about only after global events in the news, and that business leaders should make sure that every employee considers their company to be a safe space.

“Diversity is part of innovation and as soon as you have a diverse team you have different points of view coming from different backgrounds. As a firm it helps us to think more broadly and get closer to our clients who are diverse,” she said.

“If you come from a small company or firm that doesn’t have a group for diversity and inclusion, don’t be scared to start that conversation within your company leadership. There are folks who can help you, like IP Inclusive. My message is: you don’t have to do this by yourself.”

Pandemic strategy

The pandemic not only affected where people work by shuttering offices and moving everyone to the kitchen table, it also had an impact on corporate IP strategy.

Ann-Charlotte Järvinen, partner at AWA in Stockholm, led the panel on managing corporate IP in a volatile and changing landscape. She began by asking panellists to describe how COVID-19 has affected their companies, and how they were facing the challenges created by the pandemic.

Sharon Harrison, trademark counsel at Mondelēz International in Birmingham, UK, said that the pandemic has caused an increase in sales, and infringement.

“We’ve had some specific issues with COVID and infringement. There have been many phishing scams and COVID merchandise like face masks with unauthorised features of our brand. We’ve had some interesting discussions about how to resolve this,” she said.

Harrison told the panel that infringement cases have increased by 100 compared to this time last year, and that surprisingly much of it is COVID-related.

“We did not expect this level of infringement; we have seen things like Oreos [sandwich cookies] on face masks that sold on Etsy. We have no quality control over this and it’s been really interesting to see how things evolved over the year,” she said.

For Sue Ratcliffe, head of IP at chemical company Synthomer in the UK, COVID created an increase in business activity and innovation. She said that many of her engineers have become more creative under lockdown, which has led to an increase in patentable ideas.

“We haven’t had as many people in the lab, but one difference this year is that people have had more time to be innovative because they’ve had more room to think about things. This has led to more innovation and ideas. This means my workload has increased,” she said.

Stay at home?

When asked whether anyone on the panel was looking forward to working from the office again, Harrison chimed in that although working from home has its advantages, there are certain aspects of office life that she misses.

“There are the anecdotal conversations on the way to the coffee machine, for example. It is so much easier to just pop your head around the desk and ask a quick question rather than craft an email. It’s important to have those calls and connections and have fun.”

Fun will probably not be what comes to mind when people reflect on 2020, but it is hoped that empathy and leadership will be.

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