Networking in IP: the challenges and solutions for women

May 30, 2024

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WIPR Diversity

Imposter syndrome, family commitments and a male-designed system can all hinder women’s participation in professional networking, but some female-led groups are initiating change, writes Juliana Neves of Licks Attorneys.

Networking presents unique and distinct challenges for women and significantly influences their career advancement, particularly in male-dominated fields such as technology and intellectual property law.

This article aims to discuss these challenges and their effects on the work life of female lawyers. It also emphasises the importance of being part of communities focused on female networks and support.

Women who attend seminars and congresses in the technology and IP environment can attest to the fact that it is still predominantly male-dominated. Often, they find themselves as the only woman in the room.

According to data from the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), women do not participate in the IP system at the same rate as men neither as inventors nor practitioners, and, at the current pace, this gap will be closed by the year 2061.

Research shows that in the US, far fewer patent attorneys or agents are women than men. Also in the US, even though women attend law school in the same or greater number, less than 10% of the patent cases taken to trial in 2019 had a woman as first chair.

This gender gap is consistent across multiple jurisdictions and Brazil does not stand away from this trend. A recent study conducted by The Global Intellectual Property Alliance (GLIPA) showed that from 2017 to 2022 the rate of women using the IP system—which was already small—presented a light reduction.

Barriers to participation

It is no wonder, then, that while men are comfortable networking in the IP world, women are constantly adapting to a networking model that was specifically designed by and for men.

There is also another impacting factor from a social perspective. The part of the day that women spend in offices and corporations is just one aspect of their multifaceted work lives, which are complex and most of the time not spoken of nor recognised as work whatsoever.

There are a myriad of tasks that are traditionally assigned to women, such as taking care of children or even elderly parents, managing household responsibilities, and handling an extensive list of activities that can significantly hinder their ability to participate in social events that many men consider simple.

Attending after-work happy hours, dinners, or weekend gatherings seems a no-brainer unless you are trying to accommodate it between so many other duties.

But let’s not limit this hardship to having kids or not. The burden of the silent part of a woman’s job affects all women, regardless of their family constitution: women are always doing something else.

Even those who manage to have a seat at the table have a hard time making connections at work events, given that many of the common networking activities are stereotypically male-oriented and disproportionately exclude women from bonding.

In the past, it was not rare to find women in higher positions adopting traditionally masculine behaviours in order to gain acceptance as leaders. It is great to see that the idea of being a leader is not intrinsically linked to being a man anymore, in the way that women feel more confident in exercising their leadership in their own manner.

Another obstacle is the known phenomenon affecting women regardless of how senior they are: impostor syndrome. Many women hesitate to network because they have self-doubt and lack confidence in their ability to weigh on their network.

While men are often capable of promoting themselves and showcasing their greatness to their contacts, women can feel uncomfortable with the self-advancement nature of networking and prefer making connections based on strong collaboration and personal relationships.

To this point, there might be a concrete explanation albeit not a reasonable justification. According to WIPO, men are more likely to engage in careers within the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields than women.

And a significant share of the women who do go down this path end up leaving the workforce due to gendered institutional policies and implicit bias that hinder promotions and career advancement in this area.

Besides being detrimental to women’s confidence in their work, these factors account for substantial disparities in the innovation gender figures.

Empowering women in IP

Women’s networking groups are dedicated to fostering strong support networks and empowering each other for professional and personal growth. Making connections is seen as an outcome rather than the main goal.

These groups prioritise mentorship, professional development events, and sharing job opportunities to help members succeed. As a result, these communities not only open doors in the corporate world but also lead to recognition and advancement, which is crucial for professional development in the legal market.

There are great examples worldwide, as many IP associations created their gender branch focused on women’s demands.

In 2020, the International Trademark Association (INTA) created its Women’s LeadershIP Initiative dedicated to fostering diversity and inclusion and advancing corporate social responsibility.

The American Intellectual Property Law Association (AIPLA) likewise has its Women in IP Law Committee.

ChIPs (Chiefs in Intellectual Property), a community of female lawyers in the areas of IP, technology and policy that gathered in 2005 in order to advance women, today accounts for 5,000 members and 25 chapters in the US and abroad.

Most recently, ChIPs launched its Brazilian Chapter, and its members are working to bring the successful experience of the community to the Brazilian female IP professionals.

Also in Brazil, the Patent and Trademark Office (INPI) created its Strategic Gender, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee in 2022 with the aim to promote diversity and inclusion, both internally and broadly to the entire IP community.

These institutional examples are crucial to stimulating private and individual behaviour. Many law firms and corporations have also established gender affinity groups and committees to address the gender gap issue.

This could be organising events and meetings to discuss gender-specific matters, such as female health and maternity leave; or the promotion of career development initiatives, such as scholarships offered to female professionals and promotion programmes focused on women.

The most important point is that the IP community is committed to moving towards a solution.

Having a safe space to share their thoughts and receive honest and altruistic feedback is helpful to build trust and empower women in the IP field.

In addition, female-driven initiatives work as a tool of professional advancement. It is pivotal to promote education, through scholarships and internships for young and adult women, to invest in and encourage research, and provide qualifications to inspire women’s creativity and innovation.

Promoting women in the IP field benefits society as a whole, as we get different perspectives, ideas, and talents.

Women account for almost half of the world’s population and investing in protecting their ingenuity and their brand has the economic potential to bring back successful business and valuable entrepreneurship.

Encouraging women to navigate comfortably in rooms where people talk business is crucial to advancing female participation in IP. Everybody wins when a woman rises and brings others with her.

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