The patent profession is not especially diverse when it comes to race and ethnicity. An oft-quoted explanation for this is that the work of a patent attorney requires exceptional communication skills.
This much I agree with.
… And so – the argument goes – a candidate for whom English is not the native tongue often struggles to reach the requisite linguistic standards.
This second strand of the logic is where I get worried. So let me invite you to explore it with me in more detail. Because it is just possible that when we compare a foreign candidate with one who is English born and bred, we are assessing the wrong communication parameters, or assessing them in the wrong way. It is just possible that these assessments are based on one of the most sinister, and yet the most entrenched, conceits of all.
Why do we equate good communication skills with good English? The two are not inevitably the same. Good English, as most in this profession would recognise it, is both eloquent and elegant. It flows comfortably (to us, that is – because we are English). It is infused with idioms, metaphors and other linguistic devices, which evoke layers of additional meaning (to us – because we are English). Synonyms enliven it. It is properly punctuated and accurately spelled (according to the rules we learnt at our English schools).
But is any of that really synonymous with good communication? Or rather, is that the only form of good communication?
I hear a lot about the business case for diversity. The fact is, we shouldn’t need one. What kind of person needs a business case to treat fellow human beings fairly?
Diversity is not just about changing the proportions of certain types within a community. It’s also about making everyone in that community – whether or not in a minority – feel welcome, comfortable and valued, allowing all to contribute to their full potential. It’s about recognising differences and then respecting, accommodating and embracing them. And it’s about being considerate.
Through leading the diversity-promoting initiative IP Inclusive, I know the IP professions to be full of decent, well-meaning, morally responsible people. So what goes wrong? Why do we still do things that discourage participants from minority groups, that erode our inclusivity and thus our diversity too? Why do we still accidentally serve a bacon sandwich to a Muslim or a steak to a Hindu; urge an alcoholic celebration on someone for whom it’s forbidden; try to fix up a single colleague with a member of the opposite sex; summon a parent to a late night meeting, a Jew to a Friday evening reception, or a wheelchair user to a last-minute central London conference?