Choose to challenge: taking the initiative

11th Mar 2021

Challenging obstacles to career progression for women, our International Women’s Day panel challenged and laid out some ideas for things that need to change in the IP sector.

IWD panel

International Women’s Day is a celebration of women’s achievements in social, economic, cultural and political fields. 

It is an important moment to mark women’s outstanding impact on the world, but it is also vital to highlight where much more must be done to address the inequalities, obstacles and lack of opportunity women face. 

This year’s theme “Choose to Challenge” invited us to challenge the conventions, stereotypes and structures that hold women back and stop them from realising their full potential.

In the trade mark industry, the top line statistics look positive. 54% of Chartered Trade Mark Attorneys and 58% of CITMA members are female. 

However, closer examination reveals a lack of women in senior positions within firms, indicating the need for action to remove the barriers women encounter in career progression.

To ignite discussion of the practical ways individuals, firms and the profession can make positive and lasting change, CITMA welcomed Kate O’Rourke, CITMA past-president, Head of Trade Marks at Mewburn Ellis; Carol Nyahasha, Chartered Trade Mark Attorney at Barron Warren and Redfern; and Chris McLeod, ITMA past-president and partner at Elkington and Fife to share their insight, in a discussion chaired by CITMA President Richard Goddard.

With a combined experience of 85 years in the industry, Kate, Carol and Chris agreed that they have witnessed positive evolution during their careers, but more focus is needed to accelerate change. In a wide-ranging and experience-led conversation, several key points and action areas came through:

Transparency about criteria for career progression will help accelerate talented women into senior positions 

The current low levels of women in senior positions in the industry are the result of a structural issue. While we now see parity between the sexes at junior level, fewer women entered the sector 15-20 years ago. It is those early 21st century career entrants – mostly male - who are now stepping into senior roles. 

To accelerate parity in senior positions, it is necessary to fast-track talented women. This can be expedited by making career pathways more transparent and being clear about what attorneys need to achieve to become partner.

Kate believes this transparency is essential, saying: “when there are set criteria of what needs to be achieved and the numbers expected, women are empowered to say, ‘I do meet all those criteria, so explain why I am not being made a partner?’”. 

Carol endorsed this approach, saying: “How do you achieve this Holy Grail of partnership? It is always a bit secretive and nobody seems to want to explain. [When there are clear requirements] you are starting from a place of equity, so you know what you need to achieve to get there.” 

The value of creating alternative senior roles was also discussed, such as director-level positions that require talent and experience but do not carry the same expectations in terms of billing, travel or full-time hours. 
It was felt that these types of roles would appeal to both women and men as an alternative to the traditional goal of partnership. In this way, the panel agreed, firms would benefit from the skills of a wider range of highly talented people.

COVID-19 has helped combat the culture of presenteeism and may lead to more career flexibility and a better work/life balance for women. 

However, this advantage is lost if women are expected to shoulder a disproportionate burden of childcare, which early research suggests has been the case during the pandemic. 

Nevertheless, Kate noted that she has enjoyed seeing male attorneys sharing childcare responsibilities with their partners while working from home. 

The panel noted that the pandemic’s work-from-home directive has shown it is possible to work effectively away from the office. It has increased firms’ trust that employees at all levels will work conscientiously wherever they are located. 

By challenging the prevailing culture of presenteeism there may be more opportunities for women to work flexibly and maintain progression in their careers. 

Chris noted that the pandemic has diverted focus away from hours spent in the office, saying: “The points about transparency and meritocracy are critical. 

"It’s no longer whether you are in the office or not, it is numbers and performance; that’s how you earn progression.” 

Carol noted the wider wellbeing benefits of home working: “I get a lot more done and I also get time to pursue other interests, which is great for my own mental wellbeing. I’ve also had a lot more client interaction in terms of videocalls. Being able to talk to clients directly like this is important for career progression.”

Women should never be penalised when taking time to raise children

Carol related her experience of returning to work following time taken to raise her children, saying that there were “intense salary negotiations” as employers maintained that her time out of the industry counted against her. 

This conventional focus on an unbroken linear approach to careers is unhelpful and unfair for women; there should not be an assumption that time away from a role compromises their skills and capability to fulfil it effectively.

Chris raised the topic of maternity leave and the importance of maintaining client service during this time without undermining female attorneys’ client bases on their return, saying: “When someone takes a twelve month maternity leave of there has to be an understanding that their clients will continue to be managed by the firm. However, not to the extent that on their return their clients now belong to someone else.”   

Overt or unconscious sexism must be challenged by women and allies whenever it is encountered

The panel discussed the issue of client behaviour and assumptions made about the seniority of female colleagues, agreeing that any kind of bullying, inappropriate behaviour or bias must be strongly challenged by senior colleagues. 

They noted that it can be hard for junior employees to raise issues of concern, but Chris emphasised: “If someone feels like they are being victim of such behaviour they must go to their line manager or head of HR; it will not be held against you because that kind of behaviour must never be allowed to perpetuate.”

Commenting on instances of unconscious bias where, for example, a female attorney is not being exposed to the work she is capable of completing, 

Kate said: “It is really important to empower women to raise those questions and not just sit and take it. We really do sometimes have to fight, it is not always going to come to you and sometimes it is difficult. There may be something firms or CITMA could do in training people how to negotiate; how to have those difficult conversations.”  

Mentoring is a “priceless relationship” providing highly beneficial external perspectives

The value of mentoring was raised as an important way for women to gain experienced perspectives on the challenges they face and discuss issues with a trusted third party. Carol noted: “I have been both mentor and mentee and it is a priceless relationship - having someone to bounce ideas off.”

Richard Goddard agreed that he has enjoyed a positive experience of mentoring, but that it is easier to achieve in-house and in larger organisations. He asked how mentoring might be offered to women in small firms and those who are solo practitioners.

Kate noted that Women in IP, part of IP Inclusive, is exploring the potential of setting up a mentoring network and that this is something CITMA should be supporting. She underlined the value of having a mentor from outside your own firm. 

Summing up the discussion Richard noted that, while the statistics are encouraging overall, there is certainly not a uniform distribution of the genders across roles and seniority. He thanked the panel for the food for thought they offered on challenges, structural issues and qualitative steps we can take to try and make sure that there is equal opportunity of access between male and female trade mark practitioners so they can enjoy work and progress through their career in the way they want to.

CITMA will be reviewing the outcomes of the webinar and identifying the actions we can take to challenge and create lasting change for women in the trade mark industry. 

Click here to read our interview with Kate discussing her career

Watch the full webinar