Here’s a report from our Lead Executive Officer Andrea Brewster about a recent EPO conference she spoke at.
I was lucky enough to take part in the opening session of this year’s “Examination Matters reloaded” conference organised by the European Patent Academy. In a break from tradition, born of the EPO’s increasing commitment to the topic, that session focused exclusively on diversity and inclusion.
I was struck by the appetite for more inclusive working practices, both within the EPO itself and also at the interface with its customers. Some excellent work is being done already, underpinned by a greater openness to debate when it comes to diversity and inclusion (D&I)-related issues. You can read more about the EPO’s approaches to D&I, as well as what we learned from elsewhere in the IP sector, below.
My fellow panellists for this discussion were:
- Amadou Kamara, team manager of the EPO’s “Bearing and Suspension” examination team
- Cyra Nargolwalla, a French and European patent attorney specialising in biotech and pharma matters and a member of the Executive Committee at Plasseraud IP
- Evangelia Spyropoulou, an operational director in the EPO’s “Mobility and Mechatronics” sector
- Heli Pihlajamaa, Director of Patent Law at the EPO
The three EPO contributors described themselves as enthusiastic and engaged with their organisation’s D&I activities. They were joined by their colleague Jeremy Scott, Director of Talent Management 4.2.1, who chaired the discussions superbly.
Together we tackled a range of topics, including virtual working (especially during the Covid-19 lockdown) and its impact on inclusivity; inclusive management during lockdown and beyond; the effects of unconscious bias; and specific EPO responses to D&I issues – including their recent update to the Guidelines for Examination to make them more gender-neutral (see here); and inclusivity- and accessibility-related aspects of moving to virtual (“ViCo”) oral proceedings (see IP Ability’s submissions in response to G1/21 here).
Much is being done to improve inclusivity within the EPO. There were some great insights into inclusive management from Evangelia, whose team made sure that each individual was provided with tailored support as they moved to virtual working – everyone had different needs and constraints, whether to do with their physical working conditions, their preferred ways of working, their caring responsibilities, or other personal motivations and constraints. “We leave no one behind” was the motto that had guided Evangelia and her colleagues as they worked to ensure everyone was comfortable and supported, everyone’s contribution valued.
Also interesting were the EPO’s “Ten Inclusive Behaviours”, set out by Amadou. By kind permission, I’ve reproduced them below:
- Be open (I am curious, open-minded, and adaptable)
- Involve me (I communicate proactively, consult others and take decisions)
- No blame (I adopt a “we” versus “me” mindset and avoid finger-pointing)
- Care (I show empathy and take a genuine interest in my colleagues and interlocutors)
- Leave no one behind (I acknowledge all contributions and provide positive feedback)
- Unacceptable behaviours (I am brave and speak up)
- Safety (I encourage everyone to speak up and share new ideas)
- Inclusive communication (I listen actively and respond respectfully)
- Value differences (I seek diverse opinions and leverage diverse contributions)
- Empower (I trust others to solve problems effectively, take decisions and deliver results)
It’s clever how the initial letters of this code spell out “Be INCLUSIVE”. But not half so clever as the underlying sentiments, which provide context and incentive for the kind of whole-team approach that Evangelia had described.
Cyra and I, meanwhile, were able to contribute perspectives from the professional users’ side. We had all faced different constraints, but on the inclusivity side we had many experiences in common and we learned from each other.
A lot was said about the advantages of virtual working models, including those that we’d experienced at IP Inclusive. All the panellists agreed that for most people, remote working has been more accessible and inclusive – and that the move has made us more aware of one another’s individual needs.
The corollary to that, which we acknowledged, is that we must not make assumptions about what individual colleagues want or need. Remote working does not benefit everyone in the same way or to the same extent. The old stereotypes can be unhelpful here: online is not always better for disabled and neurodiverse people for instance (it depends on the nature of their condition); working from home does not always suit parents and carers (particularly during lockdown, where dependents had to stay at home and many parents were struggling with home schooling as well as their day jobs); even apparent introverts can feel lonely and isolated if deprived of day-to-day contact with colleagues. For some, home has been a happy and comfortable place to work from, whilst for others it’s been a very different story.
This is why the tailored approach, supporting each team member with their own specific needs, is so important. We need to ensure, both during the lockdown and as the restrictions ease, that no one feels excluded.
The comments about virtual working led nicely to my own contribution on unconscious bias. We have preconceptions about our colleagues; lockdown has helped us challenge those and we need to continue doing so. I stressed that unconscious bias training should be part of our efforts to ensure we make the most of what we’ve learned and don’t slip back into using the old assumptions and stereotypes.
Good unconscious bias training has to be combined with good follow-up, of course. Having identified the types of bias we might be vulnerable to, and how and where they impact on our decisions, we should incorporate “interruptions” at key points in our systems. These are checkpoints that remind us to justify our decisions objectively, to embrace new perspectives. Procedures that require decision-making to be shared among diverse panels, and to be driven by pre-agreed criteria, help to ensure that bias doesn’t creep in unnoticed.
I stressed – as I always do – that unconscious bias is not some form of evil that can be “exorcised” through a couple of training sessions. It’s with us all the time and will continue to be. It may take different forms as the world evolves. We just need to stay aware of it, and to identify and neutralise biases before they compromise our decisions. The EPO – pulling together as they do a wide range of different people – appear to be doing what they can on that front.
Gender-neutral Guidelines & ViCo
Inclusivity is not just for EPO staff. As Heli pointed out, the office also needs to consult and engage with users of the European patent system, to ensure equity and access for all. Its recently updated, gender-neutral Guidelines are a great step in the right direction. So too is the EPO’s openness to consultation over the future use of online “ViCo” oral proceedings. Here again it will be important to avoid making assumptions about the advantages and disadvantages of virtual tribunals and their impact on different parts of the IP community.
We enjoyed our own lively discussion about those pros and cons. Some interesting ideas emerged around the importance of nonverbal cues that might be lost in online proceedings, and the need to learn new ways of communicating. In some ways the reduction in nonverbal cues may make it easier for participants to focus on the real issues, removing some of the traditional sources of discrimination, bias, perhaps even intimidation, and thus levelling the pitch a little. Panellists also talked of the benefits of not having to waste time and energy travelling to oral proceedings, and the benefits of being able to dress, and sit, more comfortably. But virtual forums are not equally accessible for everyone: again, a more flexible and tailored approach – as for instance recommended in IP Ability’s submissions on G1/21 – will be vital for moves like this to work.
At the end of the discussion, Jeremy asked each of us to identify the biggest challenge we saw to improving diversity and inclusion during the rest of 2021. These are what we came up with:
Amadou: getting everybody on board
Cyra: accepting that EVERYBODY has unconscious bias, and trying to work out ways to understand when we’re doing it and then trying to stop doing it
Evangelia: accepting that the list of unconscious biases is not exhaustive: however much we are for diversity and inclusion, we may all have unconscious biases, probably not yet acknowledged as such
My own contribution was: improving the visibility and audibility of currently under-represented groups, so that our brains recognise and understand them more readily rather than rolling out unhelpful preconceptions. That’s the best way to reduce unconscious biases: to make it normal to have diversity all around us all the time.
Heli made a very good point, which I think summed up the EPO’s interest in diversity and inclusion: that we all, including patent offices, need to adapt to suit the overall community we are part of. Patents and the people working with them are part of the wider society; we need to be aware of considerations within that society and allow them to influence us.
Jeremy rounded off nicely with his own “biggest challenge”: convincing people that they need to raise their own awareness and challenge themselves each and every day. This is, he said, not about trying to be perfect, but trying to be better.
I applaud the EPO for engaging so actively now with the D&I agenda, and for involving user representatives like Cyra, me and many others in their quest for change. I hope that we at IP Inclusive can continue to work with the EPO to improve D&I in the European patent system, for the IP professionals that use it and for their clients as well.