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Interview with Ghazaleh Jerban

Photo credit : Ghazaleh Jerban

Ghazaleh Jerban is a Faculty of Law student at the University of Ottawa completing her doctoral thesis. In 2018, she was the recipient of the inaugural Ingenium-University of Ottawa Fellowship in Gender, Science and Technology for her work focusing on gender aspects of intellectual property law. We had the chance to chat with Ghazaleh about her research and hear her thoughts on the importance of highlighting the work of women in STEM fields. This interview was conducted both in person and over email and has been edited and condensed.

This interview was conduced and compiled by Zoë Argiropulos-Hunter for the Archives and Special Collections in the Spring of 2019.  

Archives and Special Collections: From what I read about your research, you’re interested in exploring the relationship between gender and patent law? Can you tell me more about this intersection? 

Ghazaleh Jerban: My interest in both intellectual property and feminist theories has led me to using feminism as a lens to see what becomes apparent if we ask the “women question” in the context of intellectual property law that regulates innovation and creativity.

Asking the “women question” in this context can take several directions. One direction is to examine how intellectual property laws, including patent law, impact women differently than men. Patent law, for example, has received critics due to its role in hindering access to essential and affordable medicine.  While both women and men are affected by this, there are good reasons for arguing that women are affected more severely. First, the high cost of medicine will affect those with fewer resources and the lowest social status the hardest. In many situations, this is likely to be women. Moreover, although women and men usually face similar challenges to their health in their daily lives, there are significant differences between them due to their biological differences. For instance, women’s capacity for reproduction makes them vulnerable and exposed to a wide range of health problems. This results in women having special needs, of which must be met if they are to exercise their rights to health.

ARCS: How did this connect to women in STEM? 

GJ: Another direction that the feminist analysis of intellectual property law may take is to examine the very definition of innovation and creativity through a gender lens. In this way, we can evaluate whether women’s innovation and creativity is rewarded under the existing intellectual property laws that are the primary mechanism of legal right allocation to science and technology. In other words, intellectual property rights determine what is protection-worthy and what is not, and therefore, have shaped our understanding of what we know as innovation and technology.

At first glance, intellectual property laws would seem objective and gender-neutral because unlike other areas of law that deal with gender inequality directly (such as family law for example), these laws do not, at face value, seem to relate to gender. In fact, the legal rules themselves mention neither women nor men. Therefore, superficially, any woman can invent any invention, register a patent, and earn royalties in a manner equal to that of a man in accordance with the law. The reality, however, remains quite different since there are built-in legal filters preventing women’s contributions to be recognized.

Historically, technology has been defined in a way that activities that are traditionally performed by women, such as weaving and knitting, although they involve a high degree of dexterity and computation. In this way, the basis of what constructs technology to be protected by patent law is gendered, and therefore the outgrowth of a gendered system is maintained. It is argued that by adding the technological requirement as a condition for approving a patent, when it is well-known that there are huge gaps between men and women in STEM fields and without paying proper attention to the inevitable outcome of enforcing this definition that is the exclusion of women inventors, the definition of eligible patent subject matter becomes clearly problematic from a gender perspective.

ARCS: Can you expand on this topic and how it relates to your work?

GJ: What I’m interested to research and learn more about is how forms of creativity and innovation that are labelled as “traditionally feminine” are treated under the existing intellectual property laws. For my Ph.D. thesis, I have conducted two case studies to examine Iranian women’s traditional knowledge in Persian carpet weaving and saffron production. I travelled to Iran and visited carpet weaving workshops in Kashan, and saffron farms in Khorasan, to interview the local women involved in these sectors and to document their traditional knowledge.

At the moment there are international negotiations on how to protect traditional knowledge which is defined as know-how, skills and practices that are developed, sustained and passed on from generation to generation within a community. The commercial and economic value of traditional knowledge in the agricultural, pharmaceutical, and creative industries has been well proven.  However, to date, traditional knowledge has been largely unprotected by intellectual property laws, which makes it possible for others to misuse it and gain exclusive rights, such as patents based on indigenous and local communities’ traditional knowledge. The issue intersects with women discussions as in many places, women are the most important practitioners and custodians of traditional knowledge, with many cultural traditions being passed primarily or exclusively from one generation of women to the next. Here is where my research becomes relevant. In fact, I’m bringing a gender lens to the discussion of traditional knowledge protection, an area where gender has remained remarkably invisible.

GJ: Was there anything you came across in your research that shocked or surprised you? 

Of course, my fellowship project was focused on an artifact known as “core memory”, which is an early form of computer memory. What is interesting about this type of computer memory is that they were hand woven by highly skilled women. My project examined the invisible work that went into weaving core memory by showing the entanglement of predominantly male, high status labour as computer engineers with the low-status work of women’s hands. It was striking that one aspect of the object is highly valued and rewarded in the intellectual property system, the other aspect is hidden from the public eye, unacknowledged and unrecognized under the current intellectual property system.

I was even more surprised when I learned that a similar process was behind the production of the Apollo space navigation program, where NASA hired highly skilled female textile workers to weave rope memory for space navigation systems. NASA engineers nicknamed this hardware “LOL memory” for the “Little Old Ladies” who carefully wove wires by hand. As David Mindell explains in his book: “NASA was well aware that the success of its flights depended on the fine, accurate motions of these women’s fingers.”

Unveiling the hidden contribution of  women in the context of core memory production as an example, helps to shift debates from an assumed separation between cognitive (masculine, innovative, high status) and manual (feminine, menial, low-status) labour toward an active examination of their entanglement. It invites us to reconsider what counts as innovation and creative work and who does it and how. It also highlights that worlds of weaving and computing, or weaving and space travel, are not as separate as we might imagine them to be!

ARCS: How are you hoping your research will make an impact? 

GJ: My research objective is to implement an advocacy-based legal scholarship to persuade international and national decision-makers to re-shape the intellectual property system so that it fosters rather than hinders, innovation in all its forms regardless of the gender, race and class of contributors. Informed by my fellowship project and my fieldwork results (listening and watching Iranian women’s traditional practices for growing saffron and making Persian carpets) it is my humble hope to provide policy recommendations with regards to any future traditional knowledge protection mechanism and how it should be a gender-sensitive mechanism that aims to empower women through recognition of their traditional knowledge.

ARCS: Last year you were the recipient of the Ingenium Fellowship with uOttawa. Can you tell me more about it and what your experience was like?

GJ: It was a great experience to work at the museum and to have access to the collections, warehouses and libraries. As someone with a legal background, I remember the first time that I had a tour of the warehouses; I felt so excited to see the big halls full of artifacts, each one of which potentially could be the subject of my research!

Moreover, the fellowship provided me with the opportunity to receive guidance from and share my work with people from other disciplines who did not necessarily have a legal or intellectual property background. That was a golden opportunity that as a researcher, I always look for! It was only after meeting my supervisor and other colleagues at the museum and having discussions around my primary research proposal that I was able to bridge my world of theory to the world of actual artifacts available at the warehouses. Sharing and communicating my research outside of the circle of people with similar expertise to mine helped me to achieve results that perfectly fit within the scope of my doctoral research.

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