Where are the female patent attorneys?

Part 2: Debunking the myths

Where are the female patent attorneys?

Part 2: Debunking the myths

Katherine Rock

This post is a continuation of our series entitled “Where are the female patent attorneys?” – an exploration of gender imbalance in the industry in Australia.  (If you missed part 1 – catch up here).

In this post, we analyse three common myths regarding gender imbalance in the industry; namely: that women in the industry currently lack experience to be in leadership positions (Myth 1); that the lack of female patent attorneys is merely a reflection of the lack of women with appropriate STEM qualifications (Myth 2); and, a denial of the issue (Myth 3).

By examining over 10 years of historical data – such myths are proven to be unsupported.

Myth 1: We just need time

Myth 2: There aren't enough qualified women

Myth 3: What's the problem?

Myth 1: We just need time

A pervasive myth regarding gender imbalance in the industry is that inequality of numbers is merely a reflection of historic inequality, which, given time will self-correct.  This is a variant on the notion that females in the industry are largely a recent phenomenon, and therefore over time, will accrue sufficient skills to occupy more senior positions in greater proportions.  An analysis of publicly available records, and records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, relating to historical Registers of Patent Attorneys dating back to 2001 provides some interesting insights into these particular myths.

Figure 1 provides an overview of gender representation among registrants on the Register of Patent Attorneys for the years 2001-2013, 2015 and 2016.  Whilst an upward trend in proportional representation is present, and commendable, it should be observed with caution.  For, as shown in Figure 2, in absolute terms, without intervention linear trending of male and female populations will lead to an equilibrium just shy of 37% females.  That is to say, parity is unachievable if the current linear trends of male and female populations remain static.

Thus, far from simply needing time for female populations to “trickle-up”, gender parity may simply be unachievable.

Interestingly, this is also confirmed by examining the composition of new registrations on the Register (Figure 3 and Figure 4), as well as the compositions of registrants in their final year of registration (Figure 5).  In all but 2016, men outnumbered women in terms of new registrants, and with females consistently outpacing men in terms of professional attrition it is clear that time alone will not be sufficient to bridge the gender gap.  Therefore, whilst parity in terms of new registrations may be an enviable goal, what we want to avoid is a revolving door where disenfranchised women leave the profession before reaching seniority.

Whilst representation among in-house and at publicly funded institutions (as shown in Figure 6), such as universities or public research organisations, is also closer to parity, the situation in private practice is less optimistic.

Private practice 25.2%
Sole operator or no affiliation 19.0%
Patent office 20.0%
In-house 47.5%
Publicly funded 50.0%

Figure 6: Australian Register of Patent Attorneys in 2016 by practice area.

Consider the intra-organisational gender representation in the largest Australian private practice firms and companies, and in particular equality among junior and senior levels.  In respect of senior leadership positions in private practice, the gender disparity is more pronounced.  For example, data in relation to gender balance in senior patent positions in 14 of the largest private practices in Australia  shows that females account for on average just over 16%.  Moreover, examining gender representation at senior patent levels of some of Australia’s individual IP firms (Figure 7 and Figure 8), and we see Fisher Adams Kelly Callinans accounts for 0% senior female practitioners, Davies Collison Cave 3%, and ASX-listed holding companies IPH and Qantm IP only 15% and 5%, respectively.

(Data extracted from Registers of Patent and Trade Mark Attorneys on the website of the Professional Standards Board for Patent and Trade Mark Attorneys, December 2016, www.psb.gov.org [accessed: 30 December 2016], associated web searches, and including websites of DCC, Freehills, Sprusons, FAKC, Pizzeys, Cullens, Griffith Hack, Shelston, Watermark, FB Rice, Allens, POF, Madderns, Wrays [accessed January – March 2017]).

Compare this with female representation in more junior positions, as shown in  Figure 9 and Figure 10.  On average in these organisations, women occupied 16.83% (n=196) of senior positions, compared with an average 44.77% (n=158) in more junior roles.  Clearly a disparity exists between representation at junior and senior levels.

Indeed, in examining these statistics, stark relationships become apparent.  For example, statistically speaking there are twice as many senior patent positions occupied in Davies Collison Cave by men named William, than all of the senior women in patent positions in that organisation.

Whilst it is arguable that this disparity merely reflects the timeline of the promotion pipeline, this is also not consistent with the historical statistics, unless it is contended that promotion to partnership or principal takes more than 15 years following registration (female representation among all registrants in 2001 was 16.6% – largely equivalent to the private practice senior leadership average described above).

In any event, whilst these results may be suggestive of a form of “glass ceiling”, research in relation to the legal services industry also shows that low number of females in senior positions has a causal impact on retention of junior operators.[i]  Other potential causes for the lack of gender balance across the industry and in senior leadership are discussed in future posts, including explicit and implicit biases, and cultural influences.

Nevertheless, the myth that proportional representation is just a matter of time, either in terms of the overall industry and/or in senior positions, is not supported by the facts.

Myth 2: There aren't enough qualified women

A further myth relates to the dogma that patent attorney gender imbalance is a direct result of gender imbalance in graduates obtaining the necessary Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics (STEM) qualification for registration.

However, a completion count by year by gender by field of education for STEM subjects “Natural and Physical Sciences”, “Information Technology”, and “Engineering and Related Technologies” shows that gender splits have been largely static from 2001 to 2015, see  Figure 11.

Considering the upwards trend of women in the profession in general, as demonstrated in Figures 1 and 2 – counter that with the largely static completion rates and it is apparent not only is there no causal relationship between STEM graduates and gender representation among patent attorney registrations – there is no apparent correlation.

Nevertheless, there is certainly an argument to be had that without intervention at the University level (and perhaps below) – it may be difficult for the patent attorney profession to realise gender balance in the future.  However, it is important to point out that the dearth of females – particularly in senior patent positions in private practice where levels are below 17% – cannot be attributed solely to a lack of STEM qualified women.

(Data obtained from Department of Education and Training, Australian Government, Higher Education Statistics – uCube, http://highereducationstatistics.education.gov.au/ (accessed 21 January 2017).  Completion count by year by gender by field of education for fields Natural and Physical Sciences, Information Technology, and Engineering and Related Technologies.)

Myth 3: What's the problem?

Within the context of the patent attorney industry, despite the obvious disparity between male and female registrations, it is not uncommon to encounter the viewpoint that denies imbalance.  Such defence of the status quo – however imbalanced – is in itself a matter of extensive research, as outlined herein.

Sociological research supports the fact that people are destined to defend the status quo as fair and legitimate.  Indeed, the term “injunctification” is defined as a confirmatory bias which emphasises the status quo as the ideal.  For example, researchers from the University of Waterloo in Canada describe this motivation “to see the way things are as the way they should be” as a driver for inequality and discrimination.[ii]   In particular, they describe that when norms are placed under threat, there exists a tendency to increase justification for the status quo.

In one study, these researchers looked at the Canadian workplace and gendered representation in business.  Participants were exposed to one or two “status-quos” relating to gendered representation of CEOs in the Canadian workplace; 95:5 male/female; and 55:45 male/female.  A number were then provided with a “system threat” – which in this case was ostensibly a foreign-authored news article critiquing a social/economic downturn in Canada.  The study found that participants exposed to the low-female CEO status-quo and the system threat were much less likely to agree that there should be greater female representation in business, and moreover, were more likely to rate the female experimenter as less likeable and less competent.

Thus, whilst generally speaking gender representation in the patent attorney industry is underreported, this is likely the consequence of injunctification, and the tendency to hyper-defend any perceived challenge or “threat”.  Indeed, under threat, such myths as those described above are commonly posited in defence – in an apparent justification of the imbalance clearly present in the industry.


Thus, with three commonly purported myths regarding gender balance among patent attorneys in Australia debunked – and the business case for change made – where do we go from here?

Acknowledging the business opportunities and recognising that an issue exists which cannot simply be passively addressed through the passage of time is the first step.  The next question is what are the possible causes of the apparent glass ceiling and revolving door, and how can they be pro-actively addressed.

Stay tuned for the remaining parts in this series...

… or catch up on parts you have missed.


Details the more insidious causes for the imbalance (backed by evidence!)


On a brighter note – details evidence-based opportunities to redress the imbalance.

Business case

Click here to catch up on Part 1 and the business case for gender balance!

Selected references*

[i] Bohnet, I. “What Works: Gender Equality by Design”, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts (2016), p211, citing research from McGinn and Milkman.

[ii] Kay, AC, et al. “Inequality, Discrimination, and the Power of the Status Quo: Direct Evidence for a Motivation to See the Way Things Are as The Way Things Should Be” American Psychological Association (2009) 97 (3) 421-434.

* For a more comprehensive list of reference, please contact us.

Published: 18 July 2017


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