Women in IP: Why women with science degrees should consider a career in IP

Market Access
Intellectual property

Intellectual property (IP) is a multifaceted sector that offers opportunities across a range of subjects. However, when it comes to the world of research science, female representation can sometimes be lacking. In fact, the World Intellectual Property Office (WIPO) reports that only around 16% of patent applications filed through its Patent Cooperation Treaty are filed by women. 

To coincide with World Intellectual Property Day (26th April 2023), Helen Henderson, a senior associate at European intellectual property firm, Withers & Rogers, has shared her experience of building a career in life sciences IP. 

Q: What first attracted you to a career in life sciences IP? 

To a certain extent, it was a happy accident. I was always intrigued by nature, people, and the environment and it was from these early interests that my passion for biology grew - that, and watching too much David Attenborough! When we started learning about science and biology in school, it was something that felt very natural to me and for quite a few years in secondary school I wanted to be a vet. 

Ironically, I wasn’t keen on spending that long at university, but once I started learning I couldn’t stop and eventually went on to complete a PhD.  It was whilst studying for my undergraduate degree in Equine Science that I came across a careers service offering an introduction to becoming a patent attorney. I remember thinking it sounded interesting: a chance to do science without being confined to a lab.

Q: Are women in life sciences a rarity? 

I don’t think women are as much of a rarity in life sciences as they are in some of the other fields of research science - for example, engineering or electronics. In the life sciences team at our firm, around 50% are women. 

When we look at female role models in this sector, there are plenty to choose from, including Dame Sarah Gilbert, a leading scientist who helped to develop the AstraZeneca vaccine, as well as Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, who jointly won the 2020 Nobel Prize for their work on the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing tool. 

That said, it can be intimidating sometimes. During my A-Levels, I was the only girl in the school who took physics for two years, and at university I often felt like I stood out when entering the engineering buildings with my male friends. Thankfully, things are changing and there is much greater focus on encouraging girls to study STEM subjects at school and maintain their interest through to university and beyond.

Q: How important is it to have a diverse research team? 

Diversity in all its forms is hugely important and incredibly valuable to R&D teams. A lot of the research I’m doing is about problem solving or responding to a challenge and I think the best solutions come from a place of creativity, something which evolves from the meeting of different minds. 

I believe this comes from all forms of diversity, including neurodiversity, and I believe that, in careers like IP, there really is space for everyone to thrive and lean in to their individual strengths.

Q: Have there been any key moments in your career that have inspired you? 

I love it when the companies I support go on to achieve great things – this is really inspirational. One such company has since become part of a US Fortune 500 company, and it is so rewarding to see them achieve their goals and get the resources and funding they deserve.

I also recently worked on a case where a patent for a cancer therapy had been revoked following a third party’s opposition. We appealed that decision and got the patent reinstated, providing the therapy with patent protection and giving it a higher chance of securing investment for further development and clinical trials. 

I am inspired every day by the potential in the products that cross my desk. Any one of them could be a game-changer, when it comes to protecting populations against chronic disease or improving their quality of life and, whilst our involvement is only a small part of their story, it is still important given the context.

Q: What’s the best thing about your job as a patent attorney specialising in the life sciences sector? 

I always think of a career in life sciences IP as wearing three hats. We have to be scientists, lawyers and commercial businesspeople all in one, which can be challenging, but it’s always interesting. Ultimately, though, it’s the kind of profession where there is room for a person to develop skills that suit them and lean into their strengths – whether this is going out and winning new clients at conferences or meetings, or fine-tuning the wording of a patent application, there really is something for everyone.

About the interviewee

Helen HendersonHelen Henderson is a patent attorney and senior associate at European intellectual property firm Withers & Rogers.