Driving cultural change

HGF’s partner and patent attorney, Vanessa Stainthorpe, reflects on working in a male-dominated area, being a mental health first aider, and remembering the ‘inclusion’ part of D&I.

What attracted you to the world of IP?

I graduated in the early 1990s with a degree in electronic engineering into an economic recession and fear of redundancies in the sector before my career had even begun. So I started to look for other possibilities. IP was such a little-known profession but, once I discovered that it involved an interest in a combination of technology, language and law, I knew it was for me.

I started my training in a small private practice then moved and qualified at a large international law firm before moving to HGF where I have been ever since.

My practice is focused on patent procurement and strategy in the medical devices sector, for clients of all sizes. I love the variety and challenges of private practice work, particularly in the healthcare sector where the beneficial outcome of innovation is so real and tangible.

What can be done to attract more women and people from diverse backgrounds to IP?

The legal profession in the UK is steeped in tradition and history and, unsurprisingly, was not at all diverse at the start of my career. Having come from the male-dominated engineering profession, this was a normal environment for me but the older I got, the more I questioned why this was the case and what were the barriers to people from diverse backgrounds entering, progressing and succeeding in the profession.

Understanding and acknowledging that these barriers exist (even if they are beyond one’s own experience) is the first step towards educating ourselves and beginning to make a change.

To attract people from different backgrounds into IP, we have to make sure those people know about the profession and, most importantly, believe that there is a place for them in it. Initiatives such as IP Inclusive’s “Careers in Ideas” outreach programme are great to get school students thinking about IP at an early enough age that they can see it as a realistic career option for them. Prominent diverse role models can really help with that, combined with strong messaging from leadership about the importance of diversity and inclusion (D&I) in their firms.

I see great progress being made on the recruitment side over the last few years, but there is still a long way to go. Sometimes the “inclusion” part of “diversity and inclusion” gets a bit lost but it is actually the most important part. The culture of a firm is immediately apparent to diverse recruits who will not stay if they do not feel they can bring their whole self to work and feel genuinely included.

Is the legal profession doing enough to promote D&I?

There is always more to do! But particularly in the last five years, firms are recognising the importance of D&I for everyone and taking action for change. The UK’s IP Inclusive initiative is a profession-wide network of volunteers working to improve D&I and this has been the focus for much great work that is really making a difference.

The priority is to get leadership committed to improving D&I: change has to start at the top. These are cultural changes that take time and every firm is at a different stage along the journey, but the passion and experience of those volunteers giving their time to make a difference is the driving force.

”Sometimes the ‘inclusion’ part of ‘diversity and inclusion’ gets a bit lost but it is actually the most important part.”
Vanessa Stainthorpe, HGF

What impact has COVID-19 had on D&I initiatives?

In some respects the pandemic has shone a spotlight on some D&I issues—the difficulties and challenges of combining working from home with caring responsibilities, home-schooling, financial pressures, illness and bereavement may fall back on gender stereotypes.

I hope we come out the other side with a better understanding of others’ circumstances and a better attitude to flexible working to help retain our diverse talent in an inclusive way.

How are you involved in promoting diversity?

I have been involved in IP Inclusive since its inception and lead its North of England support network. I am the board sponsor of our firm’s D&I focus group which advises the firm on D&I issues and our D&I strategy going forward. I am also a trained mental health first aider—mental health and wellbeing often go hand in hand with some D&I issues, particularly during the pandemic.

Who or what inspires you?

I am inspired by so many people! The more I educate myself about D&I issues and the more I understand about the challenges people face, the more I am inspired by those people’s tenacity and determination to succeed.

There are too many to name and I would fear accidentally leaving some out. I must remind myself to tell them face to face.

Do you think the Black Lives Matter movement will accelerate change?

Yes, I hope so. The pace of change has been so slow but is thankfully now accelerating. Fifty years ago it was perfectly normal for my mother to conceal her pregnancy for fear of being fired from her job. When I started my career 25 years ago, it would never have crossed my mind to initiate any discussion of D&I for fear of being labelled “man-hating” or “a trouble-maker”.

While public discussion of these issues is fraught with political and cultural sensitivities, change will only happen if we are talking openly and taking action, and we are very much doing that now.

Vanessa Stainthorpe is a partner at HGF. She can be contacted at:

Images, from top: Shutterstock / Palatinate Stock, Monkey Business Images, Roman Chazov


Stay up to date with the latest news