Where are the female patent attorneys?

Part 4: Opportunities for change

Where are the female patent attorneys?

Part 4: Opportunities for change

Katherine Rock

This is the fourth and final part in our series exploring gender imbalance in the patent attorney profession here in Australia.  (Click here if you missed out on Part 1, Part 2, or Part 3).

Accepting that the current playing field for female patent practitioners is not level, on the basis of the overwhelming evidence outlined in Parts 2 and Part 3, one may question whether there is anything which can serve to redress the imbalance.  In this regard, research abounds in relation to affecting change on an organisational level using evidence-based behavioural interventions, rather than traditional set-and-forget training schemes and ineffectual diversity committees.

Unconscious Bias Training and Generic Diversity Committees Don't Work

Research has shown that providing unconscious bias awareness and other diversity training has negligible, and in some instances, negative effects.[1]  Moreover, even when senior executives acknowledge the importance of diversity, unfortunately this rarely translates into action;[2] namely, the intention-action gap.  Rather, evidence-based organisational design initiatives that attempt to circumvent unconscious bias and level the playing field are exhibiting promising outcomes.

A motivating example is found in the blind audition experiment published in 2000.  Symphony orchestras in the US had until the 1970s suffered from lack of female players.  In the 1970s and 1980s, many adopted “blind audition” processes where candidates’ identities (and hence genders) were masked behind a screen.  Analysis of the collated data attributed a 25 percent increase in females in symphony orchestras in the US simply to the fact that gender could not be discerned from behind the screen.[3]

In terms of the modern workplace, behavioural design initiatives for levelling the playing field, akin to the “blind audition”, can be adopted in relation to hiring and promotion, capacity building, goal setting and accountability, encouraging sponsorship networks, and the like, many of which include techniques which are “low-hanging fruit”.

Hiring and Promotion

In terms of hiring and promotion, the latest research suggests that the joint evaluation of potential candidates can overcome inherent biases.  In one study, candidates were required to hire hypothetical male or female candidates for a traditionally male task relating to STEM, and a traditionally female task relating to word processing.[4]  When candidates were assessed individually, males were more likely hired for the male task and females for the female task, irrespective of performance (or indeed underperformance).  However, when joint evaluation was adopted “not only did the gender gap vanish completely, but basically all evaluations now chose the top performer”[5].  Another suggestion for hiring and promotion includes instituting structured interviews to evaluate candidates, obviating the propensity to assess more subjective criteria such as “cultural fit”, which are strongly linked with bias.[6]

Capacity Building

Capacity building focusses on targeting women with sustained leadership training, goal setting and follow up, rather than simply providing generic leadership programs.  Indeed, in her book “What Works: Gender Diversity by Design” Professor Iris Bohnet states that “[a]ll available evidence points to the importance of training programs that go beyond educating people to building their capacity as well – [l]earning to do something is different, and less desirable, that being supported in how you are achieving something”.  This sentiment is echoed in other corporate research which states that capacity building among female talent is one of the top three predictors of greater gender balance in an organisation.[7]

Goal Setting and Accountability

Goal setting and accountability is one of the most underutilised, and yet most effective, tools for realising change in gender inequality.  When setting goals, research supports ensuring that longer term goals are supplemented by smaller, interim, achievable goals or targets.[8]  Moreover, public accountability for achieving tangible goals is particularly important in attenuating unconscious bias.[9] Such goal setting and accountability helps bridge the intention-action gap.[10]  For example, a McKinsey study found one of the most important measures in predicting organisations with higher proportion of senior women executives was visible, public monitoring from a CEO-level.[11]

Quotas - It's Not a Dirty Word

Another evidence-based recommendation is the institution of quotas for senior positions, a powerful form of goal setting.  One of the most overused arguments against quotas is that they are not “fair” as they obviate “merit”.  As discussed above, the notion of “merit” is not a level playing field.  Moreover, quotas create more counterstereotypical role models; a phenomenon which itself is instrumental in the attraction and retention of more minorities.  Simply stated, research shows that “seeing is believing”,[12] and quotas provide a very powerful tool to ensure senior female role models are “seen”.

Sponsorship and Mentorship

Sponsorship and mentorship between junior and senior practitioners in other corporate environments has also proved powerful in predicting the mobility of women in organisations.[13]  In the patent practice context, intra-organisational mentoring programs could be adopted, together with an inter-organisational mentoring network, for example, by an industry body such as IPTA.  Studies have shown that the more active the relationship, in terms of championship rather than a more ad-hoc arrangement, the more impact mentoring can have in terms of redressing imbalance.

Comparative Rankings

Other recommendations which are borrowed from the realm of behavioural economics include publishing gender rankings among organisations within the industry.  Research in this area has shown that comparative rankings can be highly influential in motivating changes in behaviour.[14]  The collation and publishing of such statistics could be adopted by the professional standards body, the Trans-Tasman IP Attorneys Board, or indeed IPTA.

Combating Explicit Bias

Combating the influence of everyday sexism is a more difficult proposition.  Particularly where the individual is vulnerable to backlash and victimisation, as a more junior member of the profession.  Nevertheless, however “trivial”, Bates describes the need to speak out against every incidence in order to stop the normalisation of such a “culture”: “Inequality is a continuum, with the minor and major incidents irrevocably related to one another as the attitudes and ideas that underlie one allow the other to flourish”[15].

Furthermore, senior members of the profession should look to set an example.  Evidence explicitly shows that imposing a norm of political correctness enhances creativity in mixed-sex groups, including “increas[ing] the exchange of ideas by clarifying the rules of engagement and providing assurance to those, predominantly women, for whom speaking up was associated with counterstereotypical behaviour”.[16]

A Call to Arms

Ultimately, these recommendations are not just implementable in private practice.  Influential societies such as IPTA have an exciting opportunity to lead real diversity initiatives.  Additionally, these suggestions should not be viewed as a silver bullet, either individually or collectively.  It is important to emphasise that interventions should be implemented, performance evaluated, and constantly improved.

Summary and conclusions

Given the statistics presented, it is undeniable that gender imbalance within the patent attorney profession exists, and is particularly pronounced at the senior levels in private practice.  Moreover, if males continue to outpace females as new entrants to the profession, and females continue to outpace males in terms of attrition, gender balance will remain unachievable.  Furthermore, none of these statistics appear to correlate with historical completion rates for women in STEM; a common misconception.  Rather, evidence from many other research studies suggests that the dearth of women in the industry is a more ubiquitous combination of unconscious bias, perceived lack of fit within senior positions, and cultural and explicit biases.

In order to truly address the imbalance, and realise the substantial financial benefits gender balance promises, one must firstly overcome the institutionalised thinking and injunctification that the status quo is the “way things should be” (particularly in view of the “threat” this research may exhibit).  In fact, many of the interventions presented here are relatively low-hanging fruit, including tweaking hiring and promotion processes, adopting mentoring and capacity building programs, instituting politically correct norms, and the like.

In summary, the patent attorney industry in Australia is poised at a crossroad.  One fork leads inevitably to the perpetuation of gender imbalance – unfortunately, the passage of time will not heal all ills.  The other fork, however, presents an exciting opportunity – to exhibit transformational leadership and innovation in terms of redressing the significant gender imbalance in the ranks, and the consequent realisation of substantial business gains.

This is the final part in this series...

… but feel free to catch up on parts you may have missed.

Business case

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


Click here for Part 2 which debunks some of the most commonly purported myths.


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

Selected references

[1] See, eg, Kalev, A. Dobbin, F, Kelly, E. “Best Practices or Best Guesses?  Assessing the Efficacy of Corporate Affirmative Action and Diversity Policies” American Sociological Review 71 (2006): 589-617; Dobbin, F. Kalev, A. Kelly, E. “Diversity Management in Corporate America”, Contexts 6 (2007): 21-27.

[2] ‘Women Matter: Women at the top of corporations: Making it happen’, McKinsey & Company, 2010.

[3] Goldin, Claudia and Cecilia Rouse. “Orchestrating Impartiality: The Impact of” Blind” Auditions on Female Musicians.” The American Economic Review 90.4 (2000): 715-741.

[4] Bohnet, I, van Geen, A, Bazerman, M. “When Performance Trumps Gender Bias: Joint vs Separate Evaluation” Management Science. September 29, 2015, http:dx.doi.org/10.1287/mnsc.2015.2186.

[5] Iris Bohnet, What Works: Gender Equality by Design, (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2016), 127.

[6] Bohnet, n 5, 146-164.

[7] McKinsey & Company, n 2.

[8] Bohnet, n 5, 280

[9] Bohnet, n 5, 281.

[10] Kalev et al “Best Practices or Best Guesses? Assessing the Efficacy of Corporate Affirmative Action and Diversity Policies” American Sociological Review 71 (2006) 589-617.

[11] McKinsey & Company, n 2.

[12] Bohnet, n 5,201-219.

[13] McKinsey & Company, n 2.

[14] Allcott and Rogers “The Short-Run and Long-Run Effects of Behavioural Interventions: Experimental Evidence from Energy Conservation” American Economic Review 104 (2014) 3003-3037.

[15] The Independent “Book Review: Everyday Sexism by Laura Bates” Sturges, F (2014) http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/book-review-everyday-sexism-by-laura-bates-9264664.html, quoting Laura Bates.

[16] Sturges, n 15 citing research from Goncalo et al “Creativity from Constraint? How the Political Correctness Norm Influences Creativity in Mixed-Sex Work Groups” Administrative Science Quarterly 60 (2015): 1-30.

Published: 3 August 2017


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