Meena Alnajar is an IPilogue Writer, IP Innovation Clinic Fellow, and a 2L JD Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.
On Wednesday, March 9, I attended the event “Breaking the Bias in IP: Reflections from Women in Leadership” held by ChIPs’ Toronto chapter. ChIPs is a global not-for-profit organization dedicated to showcasing women in leadership positions in intellectual property and technology careers. ChIPs’ mission is to advance and connect women in technology, law, and policy. They aim to accelerate innovation through diversity of thought, participation, and engagement. The organization currently has over 3,700 members in Canada, the United States, and Europe. Studies have long verified the gender disparity in IP and technology law; still, it is important to understand the lived experiences of women-identifying professionals in this area of law in order to bring about change and awareness to this issue.
This event was structured as a question-and-answer panel, with some questions from the hosts and some from the 90+ audience participants on Zoom. The panelists were three women in the intellectual property and technology fields: Sheema Khan, a patent agent currently working at Kinaxis and previously at Stratford Managers Corporation; Judith Robinson, a senior consultant with Fineberg Ramamoorthy LLP focusing on patent litigation; and Alexandria Daoud, a patent agent and vice president of intellectual property and regulatory affairs at Anyon Systems Inc. The event was opened and closed by Daphne Lainson, a partner and chair of Smart & Biggar LLP, and moderated by Beverley Moore, the national leader of BLG’s intellectual property litigation group. It was inspiring to see women from diverse career paths, as not all started as IP professionals or were even sure of entering the IP space.
The Pool Problem
A common concern regarding diversity in many career fields is ‘the pool problem’. Companies put forth that they have a limited number of qualified applicants who are diverse and this smaller applicant pool drives to disparities in the workplace, as opposed to peoples’ internal biases. The pool problem has especially grown in intellectual property and technology law, with one study reporting that fewer than two percent of patent attorneys and agents are women. The pool problem starts early, with less women than men enrolling in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) programs for their bachelor’s degrees. While the pool problem persists, the panelists shared experiences and advice that demonstrate that the pool problem does not have to allow gender disparities to persist in the IP space.
Supporting Women in IP
Each panelist provided not only words of encouragement for women in IP, but also words of action and change. The participants were encouraged to look beyond the statistics and actually ask about women in the workplace. They suggested participants observe who is the project leader, who clients are asking for, and recommend women for these spaces where they are not considered. For instance, where a project consists of an all-men team, despite there being qualified women for the job, one can ask why women were not considered or excluded and encourage that change if possible. Similarly, they can let clients know that there are qualified women to take on their files. There are existing initiatives that encourage firms to create reference sheets for clients consisting of leading women lawyers in certain sectors, like the ReferToHer program.
Allyship and authenticity were two recurring themes for change at this event. Allyship should manifest in both mentorship programs, but also through colleague support such as having men in the office join committees that ensure women’s fair treatment in IP workspaces. The workplace should also welcome authenticity, in the sense that it should acknowledge women’s roles beyond billable hours, including their contribution to fostering committees within the workplace. These elements can help create positive work environments that encourage more women to follow IP careers.
Organizations like ChIPs demonstrate that women in IP can be leaders and successful, all while being themselves. Events such as Breaking the Bias are safe spaces to have these difficult, but real conversations about IP’s gender disparity, and attendees can learn implementable changes that can ameliorate this disparity in the future.