What does it take to create equality at the office?

Going-upWhat does it take to create equality at the office? Catherine Jewell was recently among those learning to help women achieve their full potential in the workplace

Late March saw a number of IP firms in Bath, Bristol, Cambridge, Glasgow, London and Manchester host the first IP Inclusive breakfast webinar. The topic was gender inclusivity, with a focus on “how to be a workplace ally”.

More than 180 people registered to attend across eight venues, with another 30 or so watching from the comfort of their own computers. The subject was a timely choice. Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has recently hit out at the “unacceptable” pay gap between men and women, and published details of the gender pay gap in all organisations in the Greater London Authority (GLA) family, including Transport for London, the Metropolitan Police and the London Fire Brigade. The Mayor said: “Clearly, we all need to do much more to put our own houses in order. I am determined to lead by example.” He is now asking all GLA group organisations to publish action plans to address the pay gap.

In fact, companies’ commitment to gender diversity is at an all-time high, yet women still often fall behind in the workplace. The Women and Work Commission (WAWC) has found that unleashing women’s full potential could be worth £23bn a year to the Exchequer. To put this in context, the central Government’s public spending on education in 2013 totalled £28.6bn. Women make up 47 per cent of the UK workforce, and eliminating gender discrimination in relation to occupation and pay could increase women’s wages by about 50 per cent, and national output by five per cent, according to the WAWC.

Using research and insight recently published by Lean In (an initiative that encourages education and action to advance gender equality), along with their own wealth of experience, the IP Inclusive speakers, Andrea Brewster and Lesley Evans, discussed what we can all do to challenge the stereotypes and unconscious bias that can hold women back. (They also pointed out that these “workplace ally” tips are for men and women, as both can be complicit in holding women back or help them succeed.) They then provided a handy list of six tips for being a workplace ally:

1. Make sure women’s ideas are heard.
2. Challenge the “likeability penalty”.
3. Celebrate women’s accomplishments.
4. Encourage women to go for it.
5. Give women direct feedback.
6. Mentor and sponsor other women.

Imposter problem

It turns out that encouraging women to go for it in their chosen career means more than just providing a steady stream of general positive feedback. Andrea talked about “imposter syndrome” – the sense of waiting to be “found out” that haunts many women in the workplace – and how best to manage and overcome it. The idea is to encourage women to value their own competence and be bold, and it is vital for women not only to take on challenges, but also to take on the right kind of challenges (eg leadership roles and new projects, rather than just the “office housework”).

According to Lean In, women tend to do a greater proportion of service and support work than men, such as taking notes, organising events and training new hires, which take time away from core responsibilities. This could be addressed by ensuring that those tasks are distributed evenly.

One surprising topic for discussion was the importance of seating choice in meetings. The speakers explained that women tend to sit around the edges of a meeting room, while men tend to take the central seats. Men also tend to talk more and make more suggestions in meetings, while women are interrupted more, given less credit for their ideas and have less overall influence. So, simply having a meeting chair who calls out disruptive or bad behaviour makes a huge difference, allowing people (male and female) to talk without being interrupted and be given appropriate credit for their contribution.

We moved on next to the “likeability penalty” – not a phrase I had previously heard. Essentially, this phrase describes the conflict between the behaviour that is expected from a leader and the behaviour that is (unconsciously) expected from a woman. This most commonly shows itself in the language used to describe women’s workplace behaviour. Men are expected to be assertive and confident, so when they behave in this way in a leadership role it is consistent with expectations and generally welcomed. Women, on the other hand, are expected to be nurturing and collaborative, and going against this expectation creates conflict that is often reflected in the language used to describe their behaviour. For example, assertive behaviour in women is often described as “bossy” or “pushy”, both of which have negative connotations.

Body of research

There is a growing body of research to support this. For example, in a study by Columbia Business School in the US, two groups of students read a case study about a venture capitalist, with only a single difference in what they read – the gender of the person involved. Half the class read about Howard, while half read about Heidi. Having read the material, students respected both Howard and Heidi, but, whereas Howard was described as likeable, Heidi was seen as selfish and not the type of person one would want to hire or work for.

Andrea and Lesley urged us to challenge the language used in describing women at work, and think about how we would describe the same behaviour in a man and whether our negative reaction would be the same if the person we were reacting to were of the opposite gender.

Appraisals are another situation where choice of language is critical: the key point is to make sure that any feedback given is about the job, not the person. A recent study of performance reviews shows that 66 per cent of women (compared with less than one per cent of men) received negative feedback on their personal style, such as “you can sometimes be abrasive”.

As a workplace ally, an obvious approach is to find and support women and other minority groups. Andrea and Lesley encouraged everyone attending the webinar to reach out as a workplace ally. It need not be in a formal programme; informal mentoring can often be more effective.

Andrea recommended not waiting to be asked and explained that, in her experience, an informal mentorship can be more of a supportive friendship than an additional source of pressure; you can work together, share your network and make introductions, where possible helping to build each other’s networks through working with others on specific projects rather than simply making introductions without a purpose.

Wider application

Although the webinar was presented with reference to the particular case of women in IP, many of the aspects and approaches discussed in the session would be equally applicable to other inclusivity issues and when considering other diverse minority groups. It is not only women who need workplace allies.

For example, in 2013, YouGov conducted a survey on behalf of the LGBT charity Stonewall that found that one in six (17 per cent) of LGBT employees had experienced verbal homophobic bullying from their colleagues in the previous five years. One in eight (13 per cent) of LGBT employees said they would not feel confident reporting homophobic bullying in their workplace. Just over a quarter (26 per cent) of LGBT employees are not open to colleagues about their sexual orientation.

The number of judges in the courts of England and Wales on 1st April 2015 was 3,238, of which 817 (25.2 per cent) were female. Of the judges, 2,686 (83 per cent) declared their ethnicity, and of these 2,686 judges there were 159 (5.9 per cent) who declared their background as black or minority ethnic.

Clearly, there is plenty of room for improvement in creating a more diverse working environment in the UK, and in the legal professions in general. IP Inclusive was formed in 2015 and is committed to making the IP professions more inclusive, with the aim of ensuring that the IP professionals of the future encourage, embrace and sustain a more diverse workforce. IP Inclusive aims to ensure that the IP professions are welcoming, accessible, respectful and supportive to all those who have the necessary aptitude – regardless of their age, gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, physical ability, wealth or background. T

The author thanks Andrea Brewster and Lesley Evans; IP Inclusive; the Women in IP committee; and host venues Boult Wade Tennant, Carpmaels & Ransford, EIP, Haseltine Lake, Burness Paull, Mewburn Ellis, Norton Rose Fulbright and Turnbull Lynch IP.

Dr Catherine Jewell is a Trade Mark and Patent Attorney at Beck Greener

This article was originally published in the June 2017 edition of CITMA Review