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Seven things I learned at "Intersectionality: BAME and Gender"​

Louis Geary reports on his take-aways from our recent event discussing the intersection of BAME and Gender.


I recently attended an excellent panel event examining the intersection of gender and race and ethnicity. It was organised by InterLaw Diversity Forum and the Law Society, hosted at Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP. The heavy-hitting panel comprised Laura Durrant (White & Case), Lisa D'Aguiar (BoA Merrill Lynch), Sadia Salam (Executive Coach; ex-Oliver Wyman) and Daniel Winterfeldt (Reed Smith; InterLaw Diversity Forum) who moderated.

While the legal industry is currently overrun with speaker events extolling the virtues of new technology, this event lent a refreshing focus back on to people. You needn’t be a tech laggard to see the immense value in improving colleague interactions, hiring practices and empathy in general.

The atmosphere in the room was extremely positive, but without naïvety about outstanding issues facing disadvantaged groups today. All panelists were ready to acknowledge the inherent difficulty in understanding every manifestation of workplace inequality, but all had practical steps to suggest, to help the current generation of legal professionals make their industry more accessible now and in future. The explicit focus was on promoting equality for black and minority ethnic women, but most of the points raised seemed to have even more general applicability too.

As a white man I was there to learn, and I learnt a lot. For the sake of promoting workplace equality for individual welfare and for the success of firms and the legal industry as a whole, here are the points coming out of the session that had the greatest impact on me and that I think the world should know.

1. There’s no one way to interpret a situation

Lawyers of all people should know this well enough. It’s often their job to show that a particular intention or effect did or didn’t occur based on a fixed collection of facts. When it comes to diversity, however, it can be all to easy to adopt the effort-saving interpretation that things are generally fine. In an individual setting, it can be easy to assume that since you mean no harm from what you say, no harm can result. This doesn’t mean we should approach every situation with debilitating levels of inhibition, rather that we should endeavour to listen to what other people’s experiences are like, in order to form a more accurate picture of how specific conduct and ways of working might affect them.

2. You needn’t be BAME to be a great mentor

All panel members agreed that most of the people who had helped them most in their careers did not share a similar background. What seemed most important was a belief in their ability and a willingness to listen and to help. Sadia Salam mentioned one senior colleague in particular who, when Sadia joined Oliver Wyman to head up its global legal team, told her three things: “Number one: I’ve got your back. Number two: we might be a billion dollar business, but nobody is going to die. Number three: who can I introduce you to?”. Of course there will be certain situations where only someone with a shared background can understand the specific issue you’re facing and give appropriate advice, but generally a manager who can stand by the essence of those three points will be as good as anyone in promoting your success in the workplace.

3. People are more likely to help you when they see you helping others

As the conversation shifted towards steps to advance your own career, as well as diversity within your organisation, Daniel Winterfeldt raised the point that senior figures are more likely to step in and lend you their help and influence within the organisation if they can see you taking steps to help others. Initiatives promoting diversity can generate positive buzz that others want to get involved in, and that’s how initiatives can start to snowball, across and organisation and entire industries.

4. You’re never too junior to help others 

Whether a partner, associate, trainee or student, there is always someone trying to get to where you are, but who is earlier in their journey. Not everyone will want your advice, but for those who do, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, there’s little reason to hold back from agreeing to meet for coffee or reading over an application of theirs. We’re all busy, but as mentioned, the benefits of keeping an eye out for those in need can be personal and organisational as well as societal and a nice thing to do.

5. Blind interviewing happens and it works

Laura Durrant shared details of a special training contract for disadvantaged applicants she helped develop when at RBS. Among the shrewd practices she helped introduce was the conversion of interview recordings into transcripts, which were then analysed and scored by staff not present in the interview itself. While this approach creates an extra layer of labour, it’s the most concerted effort to mitigate unconscious bias in the interview process that I’ve seen, with a high-quality output as a result. RBS ended up recruiting a host of excellent employees that traditional recruitment methods would probably have excluded. Despite many of them initially failing at the door of magic circle law firms, we’re told they weren’t at RBS for long until the boot was on the other foot.

6. Think before nominating your BAME colleague to advocate for diversity

Despite all the great things said about helping, and about the benefits for everyone of improving diversity, there are some inherent problems with diversity and inclusion being the default responsibility of members of disadvantaged groups. Though it might seem a reasonable intuition that those most affected by an issue are most motivated to address it, what follows isn’t necessarily fair. First of all, by definition, an individual belonging to a disadvantaged group tends to experience extra burdens that most people don’t need to worry about. Adding to some such individual’s workload by making them ‘Diversity Ambassador’ can therefore pose unique (and usually unpaid) strain squarely on a person that the role ought to help. Secondly, there is justified wariness among many BAME and female employees of being branded an ‘activist’, such that any concerns they raise would be dismissed as over-sensitive, or they might feel less seriously thought of in their primary professional role. It’s easy to see how handing someone a formal diversity position could aggravate any concern along those lines, in the absence of effective safeguards.

7. Be humble

Rather than there being any silver bullet to achieve total equality in the workplace, a general catalyst is simply for colleagues to be ready to listen to one another’s experiences and to have their own intuitions challenged. Done properly this requires some degree of bravery. No one likes being called out, for example, but as uncomfortable as it might feel for a well-meaning white employee to have a BAME colleague criticise something they said, I suspect it would generally feel far more uncomfortable for the colleague raising the concern (if they even dared/bothered in the first place). The panel agreed that by making "uncomfortable" conversations more likely to happen, rather than sweeping issues under the carpet, managers in particular can have a significant positive impact on the working environment, but humility is key to it working.

There were many excellent points raised and questions asked that aren't covered here, and many great conversations had afterwards. The points I’ve selected are those that had the greatest impact on me personally and to avoid doubt I don't profess or attempt to speak on behalf of BAME individuals or women. I welcome any comments or criticisms of any of the points as expressed here and hope that progress can come of it.

Here’s to more positive conversations, and many thanks to InterLaw Diversity Forum, whose programme of similar upcoming events can be found here:  https://www.interlawdiversityforum.org/upcoming-events

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