Picture: 123RF/tashatuvango
Picture: 123RF/tashatuvango

In 1940, Hattie McDaniel became the first black actor to win an Academy Award. The Oscars were held in a "whites only” hotel so, after accepting her award, she was forced to sit at a segregated table, away from the rest of the cast of "Gone with the Wind".

Eighty years later, the social media hashtag  #OscarsSoWhite speaks for a world that waits for a system created by white males to properly recognise the beauty and significance in movies made by women and people of colour.

The validity of industry award programmes has come into question for as long as I can remember. Are award programmes rigged or unfairly influenced? Are they truly meaningful?

Why do we care about industry awards so much? I think Selma director Ana DuVernay said it best: "We care about it because it’s a mark of distinction around the world. It’s not the be-all and end-all; it’s not the arbiter of good taste or achievement. But it’s a lovely thing that’s a cherry on top of the work.”

Awards are a reflection of the work done by your teams, but at the same time, they are a reflection of the state of an industry. The Oscars are a prime example because they reflect a film industry that has a long way to go in appreciating and advancing the efforts of female and black entertainment professionals.

In the midst of the awards “silly season” in the field of law, a prominent intellectual property (IP) law index and referral network announced its awards and rankings for top IP law firms and IP practitioners around the world. And, being a "woke" organisation, it also ranked the top 250 women in IP.

Each firm and practitioner deserve the accolade they received, and there is nothing more gratifying and galvanising as being on the team that won an award. But something is wrong with the latest awards line-up, and I’m sure I’m not the only person who sees it.

Remember when I suggested that awards are a reflection of the state of an industry as much as the hard work of the industry players? Well consider the following:

  • Of the top 250 women in IP law globally, only six hail from Africa. That’s 2.4% of the total. It could be argued that the low percentage reflects the amount of trademark and patent filing activity on the continent compared to the rest of the world, but it still gives one pause. Is there another reason?
  • Out of the six deserving female IP practitioners recognised in Africa, three come from SA. All from exceptional law firms. All white.
  • Thirty-six patent attorneys received accolade in SA — three women. No black practitioners.
  • Thirty-two trademark attorneys received a "gold star" and, encouragingly, almost half of the number are women. Yet, only one black male received accolade.

The question is: is the frustrating lack of representation a reflection of the state of transformation and diversity in the legal industry as a whole, or is the process and methodology of the whole ranking and accolades index questionable?

I’d venture that the answer is both. A black senior IP practitioner I spoke to agreed: “It is disheartening that in 2020, critical principles of empowerment and diversity are still ignored. These are fundamental issues that are relevant to and affecting the legal fraternity in general.” Coincidentally, the Legal Practices Council of SA recently issued a circular expressing its disappointment with the slow pace of transformation and the lack of recognition of the few who are striving to make a difference.

If an awards programme is echoing a partisan reality then surely the industry players ought to scrutinise the status quo — and if there really is an honest move toward equity by the IP law fraternity, then they should be pushing back against the various industry indices and network award organisers — mostly European and US-based associations — and demanding a more accurate reflection.

I can think of a number of highly experienced black IP practitioners who have skills and credentials that are equal to, if not greater than, many of the professionals on the awards’ current lists.

We give so much power to the industry awards judges’ validation of our work. Why not hold them to account?

Mark Beckman
Director, Beckman Communications & Marketing.

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