Gender equity in the workplace is as much of an issue in the intellectual property profession as in any other field, and while it is significant that women are assuming more prominent roles in intellectual property (IP), with increasing numbers of IP attorneys joining law firms, female representation still has a long way to go. 


Intellectual property is a crucial aspect of commerce and it has become increasingly important in today’s knowledge-based economy. Gender equality goes hand in hand with growth in a modern economy, so it follows that female representation in every aspect of business, from concept and innovation to law, is a key driver.


To practice as a patent attorney in South Africa, an individual must have a minimum of a three-year or equivalent technical or scientific qualification to enrol for the required patent examinations, in addition to being suitably qualified to practice as an attorney.


In the South African context, only 13% of graduates in STEM fields are women, compared with 30% of STEM students in higher education globally. It can be argued that this creates a gender disparity in the IP profession from the outset, as there are fewer women with the requisite technical or scientific background eligible to become patent attorneys.


According to information from the South African Institute for Intellectual Property law (SAIIPL), a voluntary membership institute of IP professionals, approximately 45% of its practising members are female IP attorneys, practising across the fields of patents, trade marks and copyright. However, only about 22% of its practising patent attorney membership is made up of women. This is not a problem particular to South Africa, with the USPTO reporting a similar percentage of female patent attorneys. 


The under-representation of women in intellectual property is also evident in the innovation context, where only 11.4% of inventors cited on international patent applications filed by South Africans between 2019 and 2021 were women, according to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). So, it appears that South Africa still has some way to go in promoting gender equality in both STEM and intellectual property. 


However, it is important to note that more female researchers are being cited as inventors on patent applications, and the SA Government and private sector are actively promoting gender equality in the science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) fields, paving the way for increased female representation.


Benefits of gender diversity

Gender diversity in the broader STEM fields, and specifically intellectual property, has several benefits. Firstly, it leads to a more inclusive and diverse workforce, which is essential in today’s globalised economy. Secondly, it results in a wider range of perspectives and ideas, which can lead to more innovative solutions to complex problems.


Thirdly, gender diversity can help address the skills shortage in STEM fields. According to a report by the World Economic Forum, the overall skills shortage in STEM fields is projected to worsen over the next decade. Encouraging more women to pursue STEM careers can help alleviate this problem and provide businesses with the skilled workers they need to succeed in a competitive global marketplace. Finally, encouraging women to enter STEM-based IP professions will enable the IP industry to meet the IP needs of the growing innovation space.


Programmes promoting gender diversity in STEM and IP

The South African government and the private sector are committed to promoting gender equality in STEM and intellectual property. For instance, the Department of Science and Innovation has established the South African Women in Science Awards, which celebrate the achievements of women in STEM fields. These awards also provide a platform to inspire and motivate young women to pursue careers in these fields.


The private sector is also playing a significant role in promoting gender equality. For example, several multinational companies have launched initiatives to promote STEM education and careers for girls and women. The Siemens STEM programme, for instance, has partnered with schools and universities to offer training and mentorship opportunities for young women pursuing STEM careers.


The South African Companies and Intellectual Property Commission has also taken steps to promote gender equality in intellectual property, by initiating a programme on Women and IP in the small and medium-sized enterprises sector. The programme aims to make intellectual property more accessible to women in small businesses and ensure greater inclusivity in the IP system.


Finally, from the perspective of IP practitioners, the SAIIPL recently announced the creation of a diversity and inclusion committee. The committee aims to improve representation among professionals in the IP field. It will particularly focus on providing mentorship to junior professionals and cultivating an enabling environment for equality within the IP profession.