On 21 June, our Women in IP community held their 2022 annual event in collaboration with Gowling WLG. The event focused on the “authority gap” which exists for women (and other under-represented groups) and how we can narrow it.

Several top tips were shared as to how we can close the authority gap. These included calling out behaviour which exacerbates the authority gap; acting as an ally for women and other under-represented groups; having more women role models and mentors; men stepping back and allowing women to take the lead; challenging unconscious biases; and creating an environment where people feel comfortable raising prejudices.

As the theme of the event sparked so much discussion and interest, Women in IP and Gowling WLG will be hosting a follow-up event on Tuesday 11 October 2022 in London. More details about that event can be found here.

This blog post written by Susan Nelson (an intern for IP Inclusive) highlights the key points that were discussed at the annual event in June. You may also be interested in the panel discussion recording.

The event was inspired by Mary Ann Sieghart’s book The Authority Gap: Why women are still taken less seriously than men, and what we can do about it. It took the form of a panel discussion (chaired by Kate Swaine, co-head of IP at Gowling WLG) with an audience Q&A. This was then followed by breakout rooms where the audience had the chance to speak with each other about the issues that were raised during the presentation.

Our panellists were Anna Elagina (Finance Director at Boult Wade Tennant), Gordon Harris (International IP Leadership at Gowling WLG), Sadia Salam (Executive Coach, Inclusion Facilitator, Speaker & Recovering Lawyer of 20 years), James St Ville QC (8 New Square), and Lucy Wojcik (Chief Intellectual Property Counsel at Ocado Group plc).


The authority gap in numbers

The panel opened the event with statistics that highlight the authority gap within the UK IP sector. In 2021, the SRA diversity data collection found that only 35% of partners are women and 23% of equity partners are women. At the UK Intellectual Property Office, 45% of the staff are women but only 21% are patent examiners. The panel hoped that addressing the authority gap could be a vital tool in improving these statistics and female representation in senior IP roles.


The meaning of the authority gap

Sieghart in her book defines the authority gap as a measure of how much more seriously we take men than women. We tend to take a man seriously until he proves otherwise. In contrast, women often must prove themselves, resulting in them being underestimated. The authority gap also tends to be wider when you add in factors such as race, class, sexuality and disability.

The panel shared what the authority gap means to them. For one panel member, their experience of the authority gap was having to explain themselves each time they were in a meeting and why they are qualified to make a certain contribution. This individual felt the need to mention how much experience they had, how many years they had been a qualified lawyer, and why they were at the meeting. Another panel member discussed how they had witnessed the authority gap with women not progressing to partnership levels (despite more women being recruited at a junior level). Of those women who did reach partnership level, they were often perceived as different to other women for getting there. In fact, it was felt that they had to add something extra. Finally, another panel member discussed their experience of the authority gap when they were engaging in a performance review of a male colleague who was failing to reach certain targets. The employee suggested the target set by the woman was not in fact achievable. The panel member questioned whether their colleague would have had the same reaction if their review had been conducted by a male colleague.


How the authority gap develops

The panel then explored where the authority gap stems from and how it develops. It was agreed that the authority gap can develop from many sources.

One panel member shared how they believe we are all born into the authority gap with traditional family dynamics playing a part in who we grow up viewing as a leader. For example, at family meals it may be a man who always carves the meat and gives the toast. This ingrains a sense of male authority within women from a young age.

The authority gap can also develop through the way women promote themselves. Often when women speak about their success, they refer to it as a team effort rather than an individual effort. As such, women may be more likely to be self-effacing and modest than men.

Equally, the authority gap can grow from the different assumptions which exist towards men and women in society. For example, the panel mentioned that women may be less likely to take science subjects at school since they view them as subjects which men are expected to take. Similarly, when asking who the CEO of a company is, some will phrase the question to ask what “his” name is. Again, this reinforces the idea that it is men who should be in leadership roles rather than women.

The panel did mention that the creation of the authority gap may not always be intentional. Often individuals’ own unconscious behaviours can play into it and make the problem worse.


Women’s influence on the authority gap

The panel then went on to consider whether women themselves contribute to the authority gap. One panel member mentioned how women hold unconscious biases surrounding their position in society. This can affect how they behave and how they respond to certain situations. In turn, this can exacerbate the authority gap. Some of these unconscious biases stem from men being promoted as leaders, particularly in the media. Also, a lack of women in high profile positions means other women are less likely to associate themselves as being leaders.

Women can also contribute to the authority gap when they are biased against other women. A few panel members commented on this, mentioning they had felt judged for being a working parent by other women.

The panel did recognise that understanding the authority gap can be seen as an opportunity. Individuals can all retrain their brains to notice the biases they hold and correct them.


What can we do to close the authority gap?

Firstly, the panel suggested that individuals should call out behaviour which exacerbates the authority gap. For example, if an individual is in a meeting and a woman is spoken over, they should call out this act. Another panel member referred to this as “calling in”. It was suggested that an individual could repeat what has happened as a means of challenging the behaviour in a less confrontational way.

Another potential action to close the authority gap is for everyone to act as an ally to under-represented groups. Being an ally forces us to self-educate and understand each other’s struggles. One panel member even suggested we should have allyship training too. Ultimately, allyship allows us to work together and creates a sense of inclusion.

Personal appraisals could also include a personal commitment to diversity and inclusion. This includes an individual setting out what they are personally going to do to champion equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in their team and within the wider organisation. By championing EDI, the authority gap can become narrower.

Having more women role models or a woman mentor was another suggestion to close the authority gap. Role models are vital for sharing their journeys, any challenges they have faced, and encouraging women to challenge the unconscious biases that exist in society. Global female role models should also be promoted as a means of emphasising how far women can go.

Another panel member suggested that more men should step back and encourage women to take the lead in meetings or other situations. It could also be helpful if Q&A sessions at events started with a woman asking the first question.

Challenging unconscious biases is another way that we can reduce the authority gap. External bodies can be brought in to organisations to educate employees on unconscious biases. Alternatively, focus groups could be created within organisations to understand what specific biases exist there. Self-educating, including reading Sieghart’s book, is also useful in challenging unconscious biases.

Video conferencing apps were also praised as a means of helping to close the authority gap. They can enable people to be more respectful towards each other. For example, it is harder to talk over individuals in meetings. The panel agreed that we should all take this courtesy into real life meetings.


Save the date…

If you would like to continue the discussion of the authority gap, you are welcome to attend our hybrid event on Tuesday 11 October. Hosted by Gowling WLG, in person at their London office and online via Zoom, this follow-up event will not only provide some more top tips for narrowing the authority gap but will also provide the opportunity to network with colleagues and friends in the IP sector. More details can be found here.



Page published on 28th July 2022
Page last modified on 8th September 2022
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