Women in patent

“The mind functions independently of gender”

As part of a series celebrating International Women's Day, JUVE Patent spoke to Ulrike Voß, presiding judge of the influential 15th Patent Senate at the Higher Regional Court Düsseldorf. Despite conditions for female IP judges being almost ideal, Voß (51) sees a certain reluctance among women to engage with the technologies found in the IP field. Mentoring, role models and a gradual shift in attitudes are going some way towards addressing this imbalance - but, says Voß, there is work to be done.

6 March 2019 by Mathieu Klos

Ulrike Voß, Higher Regional Court Düsseldorf Ulrike Voß is presiding judge of the 15th Patent Senate at the Higher Regional Court Düsseldorf. Voß enjoys a varied and stimulating career in a profession often percieved as overtly male. But, despite her success, the number of talented women in IP does not equate to the number being appointed in senior positions.

Probably the most influential patent judge in Germany, Ulrike Voß has been in her role at the Higher Regional Court Düsseldorf since 2014. Even as presiding judge at the Regional Court, Voß provided some furore in the courtroom – it was Voß who referred the dispute between Hauwei and ZTE to the CJEU, bringing about a change in the FRAND ruling.

Although Voß’ continually impressive career trajectory is not entirely free of gender prejudice, influential role models and initiatives catering for women in IP and patent law provide support for continued development. But there is still a need for more women in the roles offered by the profession, says Voß. While archaic attitudes are being dismantled, there is more to be done among the female IP community – and the men who support them – to open up IP for generations of women to come.

JUVE Patent: What fascinates you about patents and patent procedings?
Ulrike Voß:
A whole number of things. First and foremost, it is the varied mix of law and technology. We have to constantly think outside the “legal” box in two domains and each case concerns a different technology. On the one hand this is very challenging, but on the other hand it’s what makes it so appealing.

Despite routine and experience it doesn’t get boring, even after many years. In addition, we judges gain insight into various R&D areas. We are able to deal with complex, often tricky issues in great depth and work with very well-prepared and specialised lawyers and patent attorneys.

Have you encountered any hurdles during your career that your male colleagues haven’t had to deal with?
My gender played no role in my entering the legal profession. At least, as far as I am aware. In the Düsseldorf Higher Regional Court district, female judges are not uncommon. The number of presiding female judges has grown in the meantime and for many years the court was headed by a woman. During my judicial clerkship, however, there were supervisors who noted in their assessments that my performance was remarkable, precisely because I am a woman.

What is the situation at the specialised patent chambers and senates?
There are still significantly fewer women in patent infringement preceedings, even though the number of female litigators and patent attorneys conducting litigation is steadily increasing. During my time as presiding judge at the Düsseldorf Regional Court, there was occasionally even a purely female judge’s bench.

“The number of female litigators and patent attorneys is steadily increasing”

In the oral hearings before the senate of the Düsseldorf Higher Regional Court, however, I am usually the only woman in the room. The stereotypical thinking behind traditional gender roles still also occasionally crops up. I remember the following situation in a patent infringement case. The dispute was about Velcro fasteners on baby nappies. The lawyer demonstrated the functionality of the contested element and addressed the female judges very clearly with the words “Of course, you know [how it works.]” But he ignored the male judge who was present. The irony was that the male colleague was the only person on the bench who had any experience with nappies. Otherwise, my gender plays no role for the parties.

Ulrike Voß, patent judge, Düsseldorf

Ulrike Voß

How do you rate the current situation of female judges in intellectual property law?
We have good conditions, I think. Because the judiciary needs junior lawyers, so applications from qualified female lawyers are welcome. Even if it is not possible to apply for a judge’s post in a particular chamber or a particular field of law, consideration will be given as far as possible to female candidates or judges with knowledge of patent law or who are interested in working on one of the specialised benches.

In addition, such positions are greatly respected and open up good opportunities for development within the specialist field, ranging from further training to holding lectures and seminars, to secondments to a ministry or to the Federal Court of Justice. Furthermore, patent infringement proceedings feature many international elements and often bring opportunities to exchange information with female judges abroad. A judge who is interested in these things is right at home in a patent chamber or senate.

Are there any support programmes or other measures to help bring more women into IP, or to encourage women to become judges?
I’m not aware of any special programmes in the judiciary. It is rather the experienced female judges who pique other women’s interest in the field and offer assistance. We try to pass on our enthusiasm for the job to younger colleagues.

“Experienced female judges pique other women’s interest in the field and offer assistance”

I am also committed to young female lawyers. For a time I organised a taster event for trainee lawyers to get them interested in patent law. In addition, as a mentor in the Women in IP network, which specialises in intellectual property and the promotion of women, I tried to interest mentees in becoming judges.

The patent field is very international with a lot of exchange between the patent judges. Are there corresponding networks between European female judges?
There is no institutionalised exchange between female patent judges at European level. Networks are created through personal contacts. In Düsseldorf, however, the Women in Patent Law network has been in existence for several years.

What does this network aim to achieve locally?
Every six months, female lawyers and judges from the area meet here for a specialist lecture and subsequent exchange of experience. We discuss current issues of patent law, just like other networks do. There is no “female” or “male” patent law, even if the women and men in this field occasionally differ from each other in their behaviour.

What are the attitudes of male patent lawyers towards the network?
It is occasionally not taken seriously, as indicated by the disrespectful moniker “girls’ group.”

What needs to be done to better promote women in IP?
I cannot judge whether women as a whole are underrepresented in IP. What is striking, however, is that it is more difficult to get female lawyers enthusiastic about patent law. This reticence is often attributed to a certain degree of technophobia. Women are often less confident in their technical expertise and are thus less self-assured than their male counterparts.

One possible approach would therefore be to reduce this awe of technology and the natural sciences and instead encourage curiosity for so-called STEM subjects. For this to happen, it needs to be taught in schools, training and career guidance that the mind functions independently of gender. Intensive networking and exchange with experienced female patent lawyers should also be strengthened. These can also act as role models, boost self-confidence and promote a profession related to patent law outside their actual work.

The interview was conducted by Mathieu Klos

International Women’s Day is celebrated on 8 March every year.