On Friday, November 7, IP Osgoode, the Institute For Feminist Legal Studies, and Putting Theory To Practice (An International Speakers Series At Osgoode Hall Law School) held a unique event: a roundtable of numerous female leaders in the IP field discussed and reflected on the opportunities and challenges that women face in this area of the law.
The panel consisted of Susan Abramovitch (Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP), Professor Ann Bartow (University of South Carolina), Darlene H. Carreau (Trade-marks Opposition Board), May Cheng (Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP), Professor Carys Craig (Osgoode Hall Law School), Virginia H.L. Jones (Canadian Motion Picture Distributors Association), Sangeetha Punniyamoorthy (Dimock Stratton LLP) and Pascale Chapdelaine (PhD candidate, Osgoode Hall Law School). The Honourable Justice Weiler from the Ontario Court of Appeal was also able to join the discussion and provide her perspective from the bench.
As a young woman entering the legal profession and interested in IP, I realized that doing well in law school is only one of my worries. As each panelist spoke about her experiences, I discerned several dimensions of a trend that could be simply defined as follows: the IP field is male-dominated.
The first dimension of this trend is that more men than women practice IP. This is particularly the case in patent law. I am surprised by this proposition since more than 50% of law school students are female. One explanation given for this disparity is that men are more likely to have a science undergraduate degree, which is still considered a crucial requirement for those interested in patents or the so-called ‘hard IP’. As a result, women ch0ose to practice the ‘soft IP’ such as trademarks and copyrights, where a science degree is recommended but not required. Most of the panelists shared the view that the ‘science background requirement’ is a myth that is unnecessarily perpetuated. Ann Bartow, a US professor at the University of South Carolina, argued that other areas of the law entail a good grasp of some sciences. For example, medical malpractice requires an intimate understanding of sciences such as biology, chemistry, etc. Yet, a science degree is not required in order to practice in this field. The question then remains: why is a science background so important for patent law?
Another dimension of the ‘IP male-domination’ trend is the fact that fewer women occupy higher positions in private practice. For example, one panelist noted that although 50% of the associates in her firm were women, only 20% of the partners were female. Interestingly, this trend is sometimes reversed in the government sector. For example, in the Trade-marks Opposition Board out of the 9 members, only 3 are male. One possible explanation for this divergence is that the government is more conscious of creating express mechanisms to facilitate gender equality.
A third dimension of the ‘IP male-domination’ trend is that women’s promotion to higher positions is more significantly affected by the decision to have children in comparison to that of their male colleagues. Most panelists agreed that the length of maternal leave is negatively correlated with the opportunity for a woman to be promoted. Furthermore, women need more flexible work schedules and arrangements to accommodate the needs of young children.
The last dimension of the ‘IP male-domination’ trend that was discussed was that while many women might not experience gender discrimination in getting clients or work from partners, women may lose opportunities due to differences in ‘comfort level’ between male partners and female associates. Male partners, in general, may feel more comfortable inviting males rather than females to out-of-office activities such as golf or a drink after work. Without that ‘comfort level’, women lose the invaluable opportunity to get further mentoring from senior partners in an out-of-office setting.
In conclusion, women face many challenges in the IP profession. The panelists felt that although much remains to be done, there have been many positive developments for the past 20 years. Part of solving these challenges includes the ability of women to voice their concerns. Once their voices are out there, it is easier to get the relevant parties involved and move towards change. Thus panels such as the one organized by IP Osgoode remain crucial for voicing important issues in the search for an appropriate solution.