International Women’s Day: ‘choosing to challenge’ and the fight for gender equality


Muireann Bolger

International Women’s Day: ‘choosing to challenge’ and the fight for gender equality

Nadya_Art /

For this year’s International Women’s Day, the theme is #ChooseToChallenge. Leading female attorneys share their thoughts with WIPR about what the campaign theme means to them, the issues affecting women in IP and their efforts to tackle them.

Anita Shaw, IP law counsel, IBM

“I love this year’s theme: it’s so powerful. I’m going to pledge to continue to challenge myself and others, and ask what more could we collectively be doing to achieve greater equality for women and other minorities, particularly given the impact of the pandemic.

“For myself, I want to continue my learning journey and to use my voice to raise awareness and visibility of any issues. For others, including my family, friends and colleagues, I will strive to continue to create safe forums for discussion and debate. As we are still remote from each other, it is even more important to keep the conversation alive in order to retain momentum and crucially, in order to continue progression.”

Regan Smith, general counsel and associate register of copyrights, US Copyright Office


“#ChooseToChallenge inspires me, because it is not just an individual call to push through barriers and succeed personally, but a broader call to challenge structures that—consciously or unconsciously—inhibit equality and inclusivity goals.

“The pandemic has disproportionately affected working women, including in the STEM and other IP sectors.” Regan Smith, US Copyright Office

“It encourages us to pursue a better, more diverse community and act from a place of empathy and courage. The pandemic has disproportionately affected working women, including in the STEM and other IP sectors. We must be conscious of this to avoid a prolonged backslide in the advancement of women in IP as a result of the pandemic.”

Purvi Patel, partner, Haynes and Boone


“Over the last year, I, like so many others, have processed that I need to rewire my brain and call myself out for implicit bias—just because I am a diverse woman does not mean that I have met the antiracist goalpost that we should all seek to attain. In addition, I choose to challenge those who self-label with terms like ‘girl boss’ or ‘boss babe’, as they truly undermine the goal of equity.

“The inventorship gap continues to be a big issue for women in IP. I was lucky to have a (male) mentor and sponsor—I want to move this forwards with the hopes that future generations will do the same.”

Mari-Elise Paul, attorney, intellectual property and technology group, Stites & Harbison

“Speaking frankly, the theme #ChooseToChallenge is a little scary and runs slightly counter to my nature. Growing up in the northeast of the US and then working for a traditional law firm in a traditional law firm culture, #ChoosingToChallenge does not come easily. It takes courage to take on gender norms in the workplace that have been entrenched over generations. It can lead to men doubling down on unwarranted stereotypes about women.

“Simply stated, challenging is, itself, challenging. To me, #ChooseToChallenge means speaking up for gender equality and against bias—both implicit and explicit. It means making myself uncomfortable and, perhaps, others uncomfortable by challenging traditional ‘ways we do things’ in order to advance women’s opportunities.”

Cecilia Sanabria, partner, Finnegan


“Sometimes we are very good about standing up for others who can’t stand up for themselves, but perhaps not so courageous when it comes to standing up for ourselves.

“Often we think we need to be 100% prepared or be the top expert for a new role or project and decline opportunities for fear of not being ready or qualified. It is extremely important for the advancement of women that we each get comfortable with the uncomfortable of pushing boundaries—challenging our own as well as society’s.

“Sometimes we are very good about standing up for others who can’t stand up for themselves, but perhaps not so courageous when it comes to standing up for ourselves.” Cecilia Sanabria, Finnegan.

“One issue affecting women in IP is underrepresentation. There are fewer women earning STEM degrees than men. While women make up about 50% of law students, those numbers do not correlate when you look at the number of women lawyers at law firms. As you go up the ranks to equity partners, the numbers decrease dramatically.

“There are many initiatives directed at these issues, but we simply need to do more and do better. Professionally, I am the co-lead for Finnegan FORWARD, which is Finnegan’s women business initiative focused on the advancement and development of women attorneys at the firm.”

Catherine Escobedo, of counsel, BARLAW—Barrera & Asociados


“For me, this year’s theme means mainly two things. Firstly, we need to challenge ourselves by broadening our knowledge and understanding, not only of the topics in our fields of expertise or work, but of politics, human rights, and gender equality. It is important to have an informed opinion and we should not be afraid or embarrassed of recognising our own ignorance to always improve ourselves.

“Secondly, we need to challenge others by not being afraid of speaking up when we witness injustices, when we learn about people spreading misinformation, when someone is not giving us the treatment that we deserve.

“I have been fortunate and privileged to have been able to develop my career in environments that allowed my growth and where women were leading. BARLAW is a great example of women leading in the IP world, with all women partners, women associates as heads of the different areas, women appearing in different rankings and being the first IP boutique in Peru led by women. But I'm aware that not everyone has been that lucky.”

Emily Collins, vice president of Kilburn & Strode’s San Francisco office


“We’re increasingly seeing diversity in the number of women working in IP.  However, there is a lack of female representation in senior positions. A lack of visible representation at more senior levels has an impact on women throughout the workforce. If we see leadership roles as predominantly male, this influences how likely women are to pursue them. It can result in women—consciously or unconsciously—ruling themselves out of opportunities.

“If leaders show predominantly masculine traits, we assume we have to show similar traits to reach that position—which is  untrue,” Emily Collins, Kilburn & Strode

“The same is true of the attitudes shown in senior positions. If leaders show predominantly masculine traits, we assume we have to show similar traits to reach that position—which is  untrue. An environment that is predominately male is more difficult for women to break into and less geared towards women.

“Part of my “choosing to challenge” is asking myself how I can help women in my team and workplace to progress. One thing I have learnt this year from the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement is the importance of using your own platform to offer visibility to others.”

Julia-Anne Matheson, partner, Potomac Law


For me, the theme #ChooseToChallenge has a dual meaning that applies to women in business generally, not merely to women in IP—it is encouragement to question and to stand up against the inherent self-doubt that plagues so many incredibly talented women I know—and nearly none of the men I engage with.

“The high-tech industry, patent bar, and community of patent applicants remains very male-dominated. That means fewer women in leadership positions, fewer networking opportunities, and more obstacles to professional development and business generation.

“After 30 years of practice, I made the decision to leave equity partnership in Big Law in favour of ‘new law’.  While I knew that the decision was the right one for me personally, I struggled with the impact my decision might have on, and the message it might send to, junior women. I have always taken seriously my responsibility to be a mentor to younger women, a support system for women colleagues, and a vocal proponent—in practice and in print—of professional women more generally.” 

Beatriz San Martin, IP partner, Arnold & Porter


“For me, this year’s campaign theme means that everyone has a responsibility to challenge discrimination and bias. Staying silent is no longer acceptable as it only serves to support the old ways. Too many women, individuals from other diverse groups, and people with caring responsibilities, are leaving before they reach senior levels. They can’t see themselves as— and don’t want to be—a partner as traditionally perceived.

“In some firms, they experience bias and aren’t being given the opportunity to succeed and progress, especially when incorrect assumptions about their careers and priorities are made by their managers. We can’t let this continue.”

“I feel strongly about the responsibility that more senior women have in helping other women advance. I have mentored a number of female associates formally and informally supporting their career development. I make a point of recommending female peers from other firms and within the firm, both internally and externally, as women aren’t always good at promoting themselves.”

Uwa Ohiku, partner, Jackson, Etti & Edu


“This year’s theme means many different things to me. I choose to challenge injustice/unfairness and cultural misconceptions. Personally, I choose to challenge myself to do more for the less privileged—I have a small group of young women for whom I provide life coaching and mentoring experiences.

“We meet periodically and I provide them with a safe, non-judgmental haven to speak, share their fears, challenges and victories. I encourage every woman I meet, to have a voice and to give others the same gift—a voice.”

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International Women’s Day, Finnegan, Kilburn & Strode, Haynes & Boone, Potomac Law, STEM, gender equality, Black Lives Matter, US Copyright Office, IBM