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How employers can avoid ‘occupational sorting’ by women

Studies reveal that professional women sometimes inflict typecasting and hold back on themselves, a trend that one attorney is trying to change.
By: | January 28, 2020 • 3 min read

Mercedes Meyer, a Washington-based intellectual property partner with the Drinker Biddle law firm, is on a crusade, urging women in science and technology to take more ownership of their ideas and inventions, including applying for patents to help close a longtime IP gender gap.

For example, Meyer, who holds a Ph.D in virology, recently helped develop a gender-diversity innovation toolkit for employers to help women researchers secure patentable discoveries. The protocol, launched in September, follows several years of beta-testing by major companies, including 3M, Micron Technologies, Eli Lilly and Bristol-Myers Squibb.

For her next act, Meyer is taking aim at another stumbling block to women’s professional successthe concept of “occupational sorting.” It is the name given to choosing fields that your group is historically strong in, and the parallel fear of competing in professions in which othersin this case, menhave long dominated.

“Gender stereotypes are bad enough when others impose them, but studies reveal that professional women sometimes double down and inflict typecasting and holding back on themselves,” she says.

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Meyer regards occupational sorting as another reason women inventors and innovators lag behind men when it comes to seeking and holding patent rights. She adds that, although women are the clear majority of the U.S. workforce, as well as of Ph.Ds and law school graduates, they appear as primary inventors on only a tiny fraction of patents. The number is so low, in fact, that terms such as “lost Edison” or “lost Einstein” refer to the legion of women technicians and scientists whose achievements are never known nor acknowledged, much less legally protected.

Meyer, who handles M&A, due diligence, litigation and other IP matters for clients, says she has a special focus on helping grow the role of women in science, technology and other aspects of the innovation life cycle.

“The battle against stereotypes is fought not only against others but also within ourselves,” Meyer says. “People need to be taught that they can self-identify as being an inventor, an entrepreneur, a general counsel or a CEO and still be a woman.”

For employers looking to help in this area, she recommends:

  • Identify areas that seem to attract more men or women (e.g., more women in nursing, teaching, volunteering for the school responsibilities for kids, pro bono legal work, etc.). Make sure to diversify units. Determine if those areas are linked to power/money. For example, many female scientists end up going in manufacturing units, which are less glamorous, powerful and money-oriented and have less opportunities for patents.
  • Use internal corporate affinity groups to reach out and get interest from those who are fearful of volunteering.
  • Determine how safe your organization is for women to speak up, be heard or volunteer. This is an issue for diversity as well as for corporate ethics and risk management.
  • Educate and actively employ initiatives that work to get people to do things outside their comfort zones.

Most of all she says, communication clarity matters.

“This is not the fault of the ‘white guy,’ ” she says. “These are the rules our society uses to domesticate its children into adults that lead to this result. It makes all of us have biases.”

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Rather, there needs to be open communication so the “white guy” doesn’t shut down and think, “Oh, it’s just another #MeToo moment. It’s not my fault, I’m not like that.”

She notes men also face stereotypes: They aren’t expected to be vulnerable or cry, but they can bluff and be loud and raucous. Women, on the other hand, must be “ladylike.” They can’t curse, ask for a raise and must be “proper.”

“If you think about that, women surely can’t be promoters!” she says. “Of course, that’s a faulty assumption.”

Tom Starner is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia who has been covering the human resource space and all of its component processes for over two decades. He can be reached at hreletters@lrp.com.

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