Jun 29, 2016

The dialogue now should be focused on inclusivity in the workplace, writes Tunde Okewale MBE

To facilitate change and improve the retention and progression of candidates from diverse backgrounds, the focus needs to be on inclusion. The big question is: are we trying to assimilate people from diverse backgrounds into the established norms of the profession or are we trying to change the culture of profession? I believe the answer should be the latter.

We need to be careful to avoid workplace diversity evolving into solely a business necessity, rather than being driven by an emotive discourse and moral case for equality towards the individual, leading to an enhanced performance.

Instead of focusing on the outdated debate about the benefits of diversity in the workplace, let us focus on the matter of inclusivity. Managing the diversity that now exists has become a bigger problem. The approach to recruitment into the legal profession has improved, but issues remain surrounding progression and retention. More women are entering the profession than men; however, the proportion of female partners at City firms is usually less than 25 per cent.

There should be a focus on the procedures and safeguards that can be put in place by organisations to ensure that the same opportunities are available to women who are mothers.

Many graduate recruitment organisations focus on helping firms recruit ethnic minority trainees, but the figures in relation to ethnic minority associates and partners are also low. There remains an issue in relation to the progression of Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) practitioners at the Bar, with only 6 per cent of QCs declaring that they are BME (compared with 12 per cent of the practising Bar) and 90 per cent declaring that they are white. There has been no change in these figures since 2014.

There is a paradox at play in the recruitment of diverse candidates in the legal profession. While some chambers and firms would be happy to recruit a diverse candidate over an equally qualified traditional candidate, this is only the first step in overhauling the process. The lack of thought and provision for diverse employees, who may already feel excluded from the mainstream, stunts the growth of the legal profession and causes capable, bright, and enthusiastic professionals to leave.

The dialogue now should be focused on inclusivity and ensuring that diversity paradoxically becomes the norm.

An illustration of this is that, rather than firms making adjustments for specific employees, adjustments could be made so that differences are not apparent. This can be done with, for example, dietary requirements, by ensuring that food options are varied enough to embrace all cultures without highlighting individual differences, and with activities and team-building excursions that embrace people from all backgrounds.

Inclusivity is much more difficult to implement in sectors deeply embedded in tradition. The social norms were developed when the world was a different place, and politically and socially at odds with the times we live in today. This means that the issues are systemic and will require gradual and sustained cultural change.

But as the economy becomes increasingly global and our workforce increasingly diverse, organisations' success and competitiveness will depend on their ability to effectively manage diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

Tunde Okewale MBE is a barrister practising from Doughty Street Chambers @UrbnLawyerwww.doughtystreet.co.uk
Vol 160 no 25 28-06-16

Ed's Note: This article was originally posted here.