How will you Adapt?
After repeatedly being told that she ‘did not look like’ an engineer, Gail Su of Google hails the launch of a new diversity and inclusion platform for IP professionals.
Even after almost 15 years, I can still remember the buzz of adrenaline flowing through me as I waited for my first in-person interview with a partner at a large international law firm. The door opened, right on time. The partner looked at me, tilted his head, and said, “You aren’t what I expected.”
On paper, I am an engineer and a patent attorney with over 10 years of experience. However, for the average person I meet, the fact that my background is in engineering or that I am an attorney is surprising. In their minds, I should look like James Stewart from “Anatomy of a Murder”, rather than a small Asian woman.
I have lost track of the number of times that someone has told me, “you don’t look like an engineer”, or “are you really an attorney?” let alone a competent one. When I share these sentiments with the people around me, they nod in understanding because that’s how ingrained the stereotype of a successful attorney is in society.
But what should a successful patent attorney look like? According to a publication by the American Bar Association, only 21.8% of US-registered patent attorneys and agents are women, and only 1.7% also identify as racial minorities. How can we, as a profession, hope to fully represent our clients, the inventor community, if our own community does not reflect all of their viewpoints?
Diversity among innovators leads to a vibrant sweep of innovation that is the cornerstone of life-changing technologies, and the ability of the IP community to appropriately represent that diversity is necessary to amplify those innovations.
But becoming an IP professional means navigating through a series of closed gates. At each gate, aspiring IP professionals leave, because they are shut out, or lack the support to open those gates.
For example, for a person seeking to become a US patent attorney, the journey starts with access to a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education in primary and secondary schools.
Next, that person must select a STEM degree in college, usually a four-year stop, and then, there are required standardised exams, three years of law school, state bar examinations, and the patent bar examination.
Percentage of US-registered patent attorneys and agents who are women
(with only 1.7% also identifying as part of a racial minority)
Source: American Bar Association—Diversity in Patent Law: A Data Analysis of Diversity in the Patent Practice by Technology Background and Region
Each of these gates requires time and money. Even if a person can open all of these gates, their ability to find a mentor, a champion in their corner, could make all the difference in whether they can find the right opportunities to become successful.
How do we make sure that the gates are open and that every person has the chance to undertake the journey and is supported on that journey? How do we make sure that each and every one of us who wants to help has a path to help?
Access to information, connections to people
In recent years, we have made great progress in envisioning, implementing, and championing programmes for furthering diversity and inclusion (D&I) within our own teams.
Imagine if we could systematically scale out these efforts from our individual companies to the industry. ADAPT (Advancing Diversity Across Patent Teams) is a new D&I initiative founded by Amazon, Cruise, Disney, Google, LOT Network, Meta, and Microsoft.
ADAPT seeks to build a single, centralised platform that can serve as a go-to resource for DEI programme managers, potential volunteers, sponsors, nonprofits, and aspiring IP professionals alike.
First, ADAPT seeks to make D&I resources accessible to everyone, whether you are a practising or aspiring IP professional or you are a D&I programme manager. For companies, ADAPT will provide information on D&I issues, how-to guides for running D&I programmes, and opportunities to fund or volunteer with nonprofits supporting different parts of an aspiring professional’s journey.
ADAPT’s materials will be tailored to meet the needs of companies of different sizes and in different stages of their D&I strategy. For D&I nonprofits and aspiring professionals, ADAPT provides transparency on existing resources through a database of D&I programmes. Through its platform, ADAPT seeks to illuminate the path to becoming an IP professional and to be the bridge between the people working to open gates.
Second, ADAPT seeks to connect future IP professionals to seasoned practitioners in the industry. ADAPT was conceptualised and formed by a community of friends who came together to support one another for who we each are.
”How can we, as a profession, hope to fully represent our clients, the inventor community, if our own community does not reflect all of their viewpoints?”
All of us understand the importance of having someone in your corner—someone who can mentor you, someone who can be your cheerleader when times are rough, and someone who can help you believe that your goals are achievable. ADAPT seeks to ensure that every person, particularly, every IP professional, has someone to turn to.
Third, ADAPT seeks to leverage the power of technology and data to concretely quantify the impact of our aggregate efforts and to identify areas where we can do more. By bringing more transparency to the impact that our efforts are having, ADAPT hopes to increase the momentum and scale of our collective D&I efforts.
How to help
I once mentored a student who I knew would become a zealous and empathetic advocate for the voices that society ignores. One day, many months into our conversation, she confessed to me that she was unsure about the long road ahead—would she make it?
As a first-generation high school, college, and law student, she did not have a single other person in her life that understood the road she was on.
I did not know how to respond, so I simply said, “Don’t worry. I know you’ve got this.” She burst into tears and confessed that no one had ever said these simple words to her. These simple words were all she needed to hear, and any and all of us already in the industry could have delivered them.
The heart of ADAPT is community and connection. How do we give every person what they need so that they have an equal chance to thrive if they choose technology and the law?
The resources on the ADAPT platform give each of us, already in the industry, a path to tell a person in high school that science and the law are paths for them, that they can do it, and this is how; and if that person is interested in going down that path, ADAPT will provide the support and the resources so that the industry, together, can reinforce that message for that person. You can do it and this is how.
When we give every person that chance, that support, to go down that path, we can ensure that we, as an industry, truly and fully represent the different voices in our communities and that we do our part in ensuring the full expression of those voices through innovation.
Gail Su is a senior patent counsel on the patent transactions team at Google. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Images, from top: Shutterstock / Robyn Mackenzie