On 6 September 2018 it was announced that Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell would be donating £2.3m from a major science prize she was awarded to a fund to help women, under-represented ethnic minority and refugee students to become physics researchers.  She said she wanted to use her prize money to counter the “unconscious bias” that she believes is still a barrier to entry in physics research jobs.

​It was a timely announcement.  On the same day IP Inclusive broadcast a lunch-time webinar on “Unconscious bias and the IP professional”.

Our speakers were Andrea Brewster (IP Inclusive leader), Ben Buchanan (Deputy Director of Patents at the Intellectual Property Office and a keen diversity champion) and business strategy and management expert John Kennedy.

The webinar was based on our toolkit for tackling unconscious bias, which in turn arose out of a workshop we held in November 2017.  It explored the following topics:

  • The basics about what unconscious bias is, why it happens and where
  • How bias plays out in our definitions of roles and success indicators, in particular around what we regard as “professional”
  • The impact of unconscious bias on an organisation, its staff and its commercial prospects
  • Key areas for tackling unconscious bias and its detrimental effects, in particular:
    • An organisation’s leadership and culture
    • Raising awareness and starting conversations
    • Inclusive meetings
    • “Levelling the playing field” throughout organisational systems and processes
  • The value of bias “interrupters”, and of appropriate “choice architecture” and “nudges”, in revealing and mitigating inappropriate biases
  • Other ways of levelling the playing field, in particular during recruitment and selection; performance review and promotion; target setting; work allocation; staff training and development; and team building

The presenters reminded that unconscious bias is all around us, in every decision we make.  It’s a natural result of the way our brains process information, and we shouldn’t beat ourselves up about it too much.  It can, however, be tackled.  We must be aware of where and why it occurs, and do what we can to reduce it.  In particular, it is not an excuse for inappropriate behaviour or decisions.

There was some time for questions at the end of the presentation.  One question, which unfortunately came in just as the webinar was closing and so wasn’t addressed at the time, related to the unconscious biases that surround flexible working arrangements.  This is an important area, because it can often be assumed that those who work, for example, part-time or from home, are actually doing less, or are less committed, than those who are present in the office.  Undoubtedly, good role models will be key to improving people’s perceptions, as will clear objective measures of productivity and contributions, to dispel unjustified assumptions about flexible working arrangements.

IP Inclusive’s Women in IP group is hosting a discussion on this topic on 22 November 2018.  A panel of IP professionals from a range of working environments will be exploring the pros and cons of flexible working, and ways to improve not only its effectiveness but also its acceptance.  Please come along if you can – the event is open to IP professionals of any gender, not just women, and we’ll be posting registration details on our Women in IP page very soon.

If you didn’t manage to listen at the time, or would like to listen again or share the webinar with colleagues, there’s a link here to the recording.  The webinar slides are available here.  Our unconscious bias toolkit can be downloaded from the resources page of our website.  These resources could easily provide the basis for an in-house discussion or training session, perhaps during IP Inclusive Week (12 to 18 November 2018).

Our thanks to the three speakers, who as usual gave their time and expertise for free for the benefit of other IP Inclusive supporters; to CIPA for sharing access to their Webex® system; and to the CIPA membership team for their help and support.

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