‘Moving Beyond Words’ to Action: Women in IP Share Real-World Tips to Close the Gender Gap

By Eileen McDermott
March 22, 2021

Gloria Steinem wrote Moving Beyond Words: Age, Rage, Sex, Power, Money, Muscles: Breaking Boundaries of Gender in 1994. Steinem was an iconic figure in a movement that began several decades earlier and continues today to close the gender gap and ensure women have equal pay for equal work, among many other issues. In the intellectual property world, this movement is presently playing out in efforts to bring more women into STEM fields, as well as the patent bar and inventorship. There has been much debate about whether these efforts are misguided and how we should proceed, so IPWatchdog reached out to the experts—women at the top of their fields in IP—for their take on the challenges that they’ve faced and ways forward. From personal experiences to practical advice, here is what they had to say.

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Aileen Buchanan, Vice President, Client Success, Anaqua

Many women are forced to make tough choices when it comes to the needs of their family, often at the behest of their own education and professional development. One gender-based challenge I have experienced is how women in certain IP roles have had to fight against perceptions that the absence of a conventional background and education are barriers to success. This bias creates stereotypes where women can be misjudged and therefore hindered in their job market mobility.

One solution to closing the gender gap is educating women on the evolving career paths within the industry. There are so many new, exciting job opportunities spinning out of IP. For instance, customer success is a newer function that simply did not exist until 10 years. At the time, there was no historical role in IP that translated directly into the customer success manager career path and the role still challenges many organizations around what constitutes job fit. As I continue to grow out my team, I am finding the desired skill sets for this position are derived from an amalgamation of many roles, which I believe breaks down those barriers for women coming from conventional IP roles.

Ultimately, employers do need to take stronger measures to remove gender bias by being clear about the qualifications and skill sets needed for their role, but also career progression. Embracing those overlooked skill sets could not only make a company more successful today, but also prepare them to stay competitive tomorrow.

Tiki Dare, 2021 INTA President; Vice President and Associate General Counsel, Oracle Corporation (USA)

I am fortunate in that I have not personally faced obstacles based on my gender. I am grateful to the women who were the first among us to pursue a career in IP, and to the strong mentors, champions, and role models of both genders who supported me in my professional journey so far. If you will indulge a sports metaphor, I have had the luxury of drafting off their success!

At the same time, my desire to have a family has always influenced my career choices. Early in my career, I sought law firms that offered a lower billable hour requirement without sacrificing a challenging and sophisticated IP practice. I admire the women I worked with during my time at law firms who were successful litigators and mothers – it’s a tremendous challenge, but I realized early on that I wanted the greater work-life balance of an in-house role.

Women remain under-represented in the legal field, especially in senior leadership roles. And women continue to face a gender-specific set of challenges. While some progress had been made in recent years, the pandemic intervened to halt and arguably, even reverse this movement.

Looking specifically at the intellectual property sector, what can be done to advance gender equality? Drawing on The Women’s LeadershIP Initiative Report and Best Practices Toolkit just released by INTA, after a year-long dialogue on this issue, I offer three ideas:

Firstly, we can encourage young women to enter the field when their career paths are not yet determined.

Secondly, we can look internally at our own workplaces. As noted in The Women’s LeadershIP Initiative Report, this must involve open dialogue and sound work-life integration policies – actions that foster a positive workplace culture – rather than workforce gender quotas that simply address “the numbers.”

And thirdly, we can work within IP associations like INTA to advance women within the global IP community.

Lauren Drake, Partner, Milbank

Efforts to close the gender gap should focus on retention. Each year we see more and more talented woman IP associates. We must do a better job helping these associates succeed. This will require improved logistics, including systems to support working parents and systems to track and ensure that woman associates are getting opportunities to develop their skills. This will also require improved mentoring. As a junior associate, I had a hard time believing that it was possible for me to succeed in this field. Luckily, I had great mentors—both male and female—who convinced me otherwise and did not hold my doubts against me. This is not always the case. Too often when a woman associate expresses doubt about her future in our industry, she is characterized as lacking confidence or not being fully invested in her career.

Lisa Ferri, Global Co-Chair, Mayer Brown Intellectual Property Practice and the Life Sciences Group

During Women’s History Month we celebrate the contributions women have made in a variety of fields, including the law, but also take stock of how much is yet to be achieved in our pursuit of gender parity.  Patent law has typically been dominated by men due in part to the technical requirements necessary to patent bar admission, layered on top of the institutional barriers experienced generally by women lawyers. Personally, as a woman practicing in the field of patent law for decades now, I recall often being the only woman in the conference room or courtroom.  Along with other women, I have often lamented our slow progress in reaching parity in the patent field.  The numbers can be discouraging – the USPTO has reported that women remain at roughly 18% of the patent bar and 10% of the attorneys arguing before the PTAB, and even female inventors make up just 12% of patentees. In light of this, it is encouraging to see that women are grabbing the reins to accelerate our efforts by questioning many of the underlying assumptions of our profession and to advocate for more innovative approaches to achieve parity. For instance, women attorneys have called on the USPTO to expand eligibility to take the patent bar in order to bring more women into the practice. Women practitioners and clients are encouraging firms to embrace inclusion with measurable goals, such as through Mansfield certification. These efforts, focused on challenging bias and barriers, can advance real change in our patent practice.

Efrat KasznikEfrat Kasznik, President, Foresight Valuation Group

I have personally had a very fulfilling career in IP services, having had the opportunity to carve my own path and start an IP valuation firm 10 years ago, one of the only women-run IP consulting firms in the United States.  When it comes to the gender gap in IP professional services, I prefer to focus on proactive steps to improve women representation, as opposed to just criticizing the status quo. There are a few practical steps that any IP service provider (man or woman) can take to encourage more participation by women in IP services:

  1. Participate/Promote women leadership training in your organization

One way to encourage women to reach higher is through leadership training and education on the job.  There are many ways this can be accomplished, and IP service provides (man or women) should actively engage in these programs, or encourage their management to start offering them.

  1. Be active in professional networking groups

Women should be encouraged join IP professional networking organization (such as LES) in leadership roles, and help set the agenda in conferences and educational programs to ensure that topics and speaker roosters are diverse and inclusive.

  1. Build your personal brand

Once people know and trust your qualities as an IP (or any other) professional, gender is no longer an issue in most cases.  The power of the personal brand can transcend gender barriers, and is particularly important in professional services that are built on trust and personal reputation.

Susan Morrison, Managing Principal (Delaware), Fish & Richardson

As a woman in law, I’ve had many gender-based experiences in my career, from being mistaken for a court reporter during a deposition to being ignored as the lead attorney on matters in favor of the male associate. These experiences have fueled my desire to make the world different for young girls like my own daughters, which is why I believe that supporting young girls’ interests in IP and other STEM fields is imperative to increase and normalize female representation.

If we want to close the gender gap in IP, we can’t start looking at the issue when women are interviewing for positions at law firms, or even when women are entering law school. We need to start encouraging girls at a young age to pursue careers in STEM fields and to choose STEM majors in college by equipping them with the tools they need to excel in STEM classes in middle and high school. Only by encouraging early education in STEM fields, while also nurturing an interest in the law, will we get more highly qualified female attorneys in IP.

Lisa Phillips, Fisch Sigler LLP 

When I was a senior associate, the client and shareholder managing the client relationship gave me one of our profession’s most valuable gifts: opportunity. After years of being the discovery back-up, they recognized my contributions and asked me to lead discovery for a new case, including functioning as the point-person on all discovery and scheduling issues with opposing counsel. I was ecstatic to showcase my skills.

But not everyone was enthusiastic about my leadership role, especially one of the opposing lawyers. This was still the era when it was uncommon for technically-trained women to practice patent litigation. And opposing counsel, who had been practicing for “decades longer,” as he frequently reminded me, may have never encountered a woman in such a role. He was condescending and patronizing, interrupting me on every call, often telling me I was being “too aggressive” and asking when a male partner would be available for a call to discuss the same issues. But having worked as a research pharmacologist for 10 years before law school, I’d already faced such workplace boorish conduct and sexist attitudes. Although it wasn’t always easy to ignore his abuse, I fought through it, and our team achieved an outcome well beyond expectations.

I had impressed the client and the shareholder, though, and became the go-to discovery leader on other matters. And when I made partner, my performance on this opportunity contributed to the firm’s decision. And after that, I used my previous experiences like this one as examples when helping to mentor female associates.

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The Author

Eileen McDermott

Eileen McDermott is the Editor-in-Chief of IPWatchdog.com. Eileen is a veteran IP and legal journalist, and no stranger to the intellectual property world, having held editorial and managerial positions at several publications and industry organizations. She has acted as editorial consultant for the International Trademark Association (INTA), chiefly overseeing the editorial process for the Association’s twice-monthly newsletter, the INTA Bulletin. Eileen has also served as a freelance editor for the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO); as senior consulting editor for the Intellectual Property Owners Association (IPO) from 2015 to 2017; as Managing Editor and Editor-in-Chief at INTA from 2013 to 2016; and was Americas Editor for Managing Intellectual Property magazine from 2007 to 2013.

Warning & Disclaimer: The pages, articles and comments on IPWatchdog.com do not constitute legal advice, nor do they create any attorney-client relationship. The articles published express the personal opinion and views of the author as of the time of publication and should not be attributed to the author’s employer, clients or the sponsors of IPWatchdog.com. Read more.

Discuss this

There are currently 3 Comments comments.

  1. TFCFM March 22, 2021 10:15 am

    One bit of advice I didn’t see here:

    If you’re a qualified female patent practitioner and, one way or another, have ended up at one of the dwindling number of ‘dinosaur’ firms which still treats women less favorably, LEAVE.

    There are plenty of firms out there looking to pick up qualified female practitioners (both to increase the number of qualified practitioners and, separately, to increase the appearance that the firm actively engages female practitioners). Frankly, if you’ve had the bad fortune to end up at a ‘dinosaur’ firm, it’s exceedingly unlikely that the firm itself is going to change its stripes, regardless of your efforts and/or your qualifications.

    Hasten the dinosaur firm’s extinction and get yourself to a non-dinosaur firm ASAP.

  2. BP March 22, 2021 4:34 pm

    My first job as a patent attorney was at a woman headed firm, she hired other women and they excelled. In academia, I’ve had women bosses/mentors. In turn, I’ve trained women scientists, engineers and patent attorneys. My sister is an engineer, my sister-in-law a PhD engineer (was also a pilot at age 18), my cousin is an architect, best friend’s wife is a surgeon, another friend, she’s CEO of well-known lab – and all well over 50 (of course they have stories). Growing up in a 1960s-70s women’s liberation environment (neighborhood over from HRC) had me thinking all women had choices and supportive families. I was disheartened in 1995 when a law school classmate from some small midwestern town said that her father thought women shouldn’t waste their time with school. The civil rights and other movements bypassed many places; tie that in with the “school boy” mentality of Big Law, Big Tech and Wall Street and we see the result. Voices like Susan Fowler need to be heard (Reflecting on one very, very strange year at Uber) and those at Google AI Ethics too! I thank the writers for sharing. Better get back to work, paying law school tuition for my favorite woman.

  3. Night Writer March 23, 2021 8:21 am

    The reality is that large corporations have put all sorts of quotas on women and minorities in law firms to be able to respond to RFP for legal work.

    If you are a female patent attorney, you will get a job much, much easier than a male patent attorney. And your chance of becoming a partner is much, much better.

    There are some places where it is still bad but all you have to do is leave and find one of the ones that needs you desperately so they can do work for a large corporation.