Next in our series of posts to mark International Women’s Day on Friday 8 March, we hear from Susi Fish, patent attorney and partner at Boult Wade Tennant, another member of our Women in IP committee. Susi shares her own thoughts on the theme #BalanceforBetter, following on from Emily Teesdale’s and Andrew Sunderland’s yesterday. We also have some comments, particularly around gender diversity in supporting roles, from another committee member Sarah Kostiuk-Smith, patent attorney and associate at Mewburn Ellis. Plus we’ve a contribution from Ben Hoyle, patent attorney and director of Hoyle IP Services Limited, who was a panellist at our November 2018 event on flexible working. Read on, and let us know if these comments strike a chord with you.
Similarly to Emily, I was one of very few girls on my Mechanical Engineering degree and wonder how much has really changed in the 20+ years since I went to university in that respect; the statistics would suggest not much 1,2. However, I have always had very strong female role models at my firm, where there are and were a significant number of females both at entry level and partnership – although it is fair to say the proportion does reduce as you move up the ranks.
The main changes I have noticed over my 18 years in the profession are the following:
- The number of “dual career” families, particularly at partnership level. Whilst it used to be fair to say that Partners with children, were often the working spouse/partner (for want of another word), it seems that this is changing. I was just discussing yesterday that now there are more Partners with children whose spouse/significant other is also working, often in a similarly professional role.
- The number of people, at all levels and in all roles (support and fee earning), who are working part time has significantly increased.
- The flexibility available is now much increased, be this in the total hours worked/where one works/the hours one is in the office.
- The gender balance in the profession as a whole appears to be much more equal, but I do not see that the same can be said of the ethnic diversity.
In future I think it would be good to see parity in the flexible working patterns across genders and ethnic groups (for example men and women sharing the load at home/with families/caring equally without it being unusual). I also think we need to continue to work to increase the number of women and ethnic backgrounds at the senior levels.
1 Taken from page 7 of https://www.engineeringuk.com/media/1691/gender-disparity-in-engineering.pdf “Although consistently more women progress into higher education than men – comprising 56% of first degree entrants in the academic year 2015 to 2016 – just 16% of first degree entrants into engineering and technology were female. This made it a subject area with one of the lowest proportions of first degree entrants who were women, second only to computer science.
Examining this further by discipline reveals that, in the academic year 2015 to 2016, female underrepresentation at first degree level was most severe in mechanical (10%) and aerospace engineering (12%). However, encouragingly, both disciplines have seen a significant increase in the number of female qualifiers (rising by 46% and 47% respectively over the five years leading up to the academic year 2015 to 2016).”
2 https://www.wes.org.uk/content/wesstatistics – provides some rather sobering statistics.
And here are Sarah’s thoughts:
The most significant change I have observed in the past few years is greater diversity in our support teams. When I started in the profession virtually all of the secretaries I encountered at my own firm, other firms, and in clients’ offices were female. Now, it seems much more common for an office to have one or even a few men working in support teams as secretaries and administrative assistants. I have also noticed greater diversity more generally in support teams. This can only be a good thing for balance within an office. Even with good gender balance amongst attorneys, exclusively or predominantly female support teams can perpetuate gender stereotypes around the office. The focus is often on encouraging and supporting women into senior roles, but there is huge value in fostering diversity across all roles within an organisation.
University was where I first really noticed a gender split in engineering: I went from maths and physics classes with a reasonably equal split (some even being more female-heavy) to lecture theatres that were 85-90% male. The top-heavy nature of academic engineering, electronics and computing in particular, was one of the reasons I decided on the patent profession – looking around offices in 2004/2005 it seemed more gender-balanced.
After a few years, I did become familiar with a residual “Mad Men” atmosphere; the male senior partners often had somewhat anachronistic attitudes. You also saw how the relatively equal split at the lower levels started to disappear as you went up.
I think things have been getting better over the last ten years and this has accelerated over the last five. That set of male senior partners who were discussed in hushed tones over Yellow-Book socials have now mostly retired. Some of the progression has come about through the hard fight of those within the profession; some of it is accidental – the financial crisis decimated hiring, but put those who survived in a much better bargaining position when recruitment picked up again. It is worth considering the accidental factors, as it shows that we cannot rest and assume a “job done”. Culture can always slip back, especially when the educational system still shows the same split that existed 10-20 years ago.
I see an aim for a roughly equal gender split through patent firms to make good business sense; it helps promote a diversity of thinking that leads to better strategy and service provision. It also leads to a happier work-force, which easily pays for itself.