Shuku Egerton reports on her takeaway from our recent event on the Intersectionality of BAME and Gender.
The panel at Weil, Gotshal & Manges on Wednesday, 5 June focused on the different experiences and challenges faced by diverse individuals in the work place. A result of a collaboration of the InterLaw Diversity Forum’s Race & Ethnicity (BAME) Network and their Gender Equality Initiative (in partnership with the Law Society), the panel discussed the intersection between the different streams of diversity and how to integrate them into the mainstream dialogue.
Simon Davis (Vice President, The Law Society; Partner, Clifford Chance) gave an introduction which framed the overarching question and issue at the heart of the discussion:
How do we change the working and business culture to one where individuals are no longer defined by certain characteristics, and where they can bring those characteristics to work without feeling self-conscious or subject to bias (conscious or unconscious)?
The panel below, discussed this question with reference to their own experience in the work place, drawing out possible solutions to combat prejudice and progress toward equality in the work place.
Laura Durrant, Partner, White & Case;
Lisa D’Aguiar, Director and Assistant General Counsel-EMEA, Bank of America Merrill Lynch;
Sadia Salam,Executive Coach, Sadia Salam Coaching; and
Daniel Winterfeldt, Global Capital Markets Partner, Reed Smith; Chair, InterLaw Diversity Forum (Moderator)
Here are some of the issues and challenges they highlighted, and what in their experiences and opinions can be done to neutralise and overcome them.
Feeling as though you don’t belong
Feeling as though you ‘don’t fit in’ or know what is expected of you as a result of your background, class, gender or race - is an issue which can cause an individual to place limitations on themselves. Not being able to find an affinity with your colleagues or someone to turn to for advice on how to handle situations specific to your circumstances, makes it more difficult for people with diverse backgrounds to feel integrated in a work culture. This can breed insecurity, and may be responsible for why, despite the number of BAME individuals recruited by companies, so many leave before fulfilling their potential.
Diversity stream priorities
Despite initiatives such as Black History Month and LGBTQ+ Pride Month, promoting Race and LGBTQ+ awareness respectively, the overwhelming dialogue currently focuses on Gender. The competition for different strands to enter the mainstream, has led to focus on “only” groups, which misses the fundamental motive of the D&I movement; to promote equality across social, cultural, and ethnic boundaries. Acknowledging that each individual’s experiences creates different challenges on a subjective as well as objective basis, and that one does not “trump” the other is crucial to creating an inclusive culture. It is similarly important to recognise that an individual may face difficult challenges in different cultural settings. One example was that in the US racial barriers were more pervasive than in the UK, where social mobility presented a bigger challenge.
From a majority female panel, their different expressions of how they experienced challenges as a result of their femininity demonstrated the intersectionality of cultural barriers. It was addressed that it is difficult to pinpoint whether gender, race or background played the biggest role in problematising working relationships, and that often it was a mixture. An example was being described as an “exotic” woman; exposing an individual’s gender, race and ethnicity to unsolicited comments and connotations.
Although this example was taken from some time ago, Sherly Sandberg’s book Lean In, was referenced in identifying the problems of networking today as a female. The fact that two men having drinks to discuss work in a more informal setting would be assumed to be colleagues, whereas a man and a woman would more likely be assumed a date, creates a barrier to the latter professionally approaching each other. This tension makes building an inclusive working culture difficult if a woman is at risk of being seen as unprofessional for doing what her male counterparts do without fear of being stigmatised.
A problem that became apparent in the discussions was that people are inherently a product of their circumstances and the social framework they both live in. This can cause an internalising of unconscious bias, which then becomes the status quo, blinding people to issues embedded in a culture which need to be addressed. A product of this internalising is that individuals who have had to struggle to overcome these embedded barriers to rise to their position believe others should have to do the same. This promotes a self-perpetuating cycle of “hazing” and resentment, which prevents the change necessary to stop the cycle from being able to assert itself.
Making change sustainable
The recent focus on recruiting and creating opportunities for diverse individuals to enter law firms and other companies alike has created a bottleneck effect. Despite the positive results from initiatives such as affirmative action enabling diverse peoples to enter professions, there is a lack of translation of those efforts progressing up the career ladder. One of the reasons given to account for this was a lack of a continuing support system.
The direct correlation shown in InterLaw Diversity Forum’s 2012 report, Career Progression in the Legal Sector, that “the more an individual diverges from the elite-educated white male norm the less well-paid and less satisfied they will be with their career progression”, illustrates the need for more long-term support systems. In order to change the cultural attitudes of employees, companies need to change from within to foster a more inclusive and accepting atmosphere. However, there can be no one simple method to do this – and it is this challenge that requires companies to actively participate in their cultural restructuring.
What was unanimously agreed upon in the panel is that speaking up, creating an open dialogue and being willing to have uncomfortable conversations is the first step to breaking down barriers. By asking questions and feeling comfortable recognising when you need support or help you can defy self-limitations that, society has convinced you, are in place.
Similarly, address matters that have made you feel uncomfortable, and don’t allow them to become something you internalise or harbour resentment for. Instead, create opportunities for yourself to find an affinity with someone by having an open dialogue, be willing to acknowledge that your challenge may not be the same as theirs’, and that their perceptions or social understandings may also be different. Being inclusive means being open to trying to understand different views.
Knowing your own value and “what you bring to the party” helps to counteract self-limiting pre-conceptions of yourself and what you have an equal right to partake in. This can be in the form of embracing your difference - acknowledging that you stand out from the crowd and using that as an asset to make yourself more memorable, or better able to assert yourself. Additionally, having an inner knowledge of your own self-worth makes it easier not to internalise biases and also to ask for what you deserve – in the form of deals, bonuses, or career opportunities. You have an equal right to a seat at the table, and to the food being served. You do not have to ask permission to eat.
Lift up and Support
Acknowledge when other people have done good work, just as you acknowledge when you yourself have. If you struggled to overcome unfair barriers, help to take the necessary steps that prevents others from having to do the same. Whether this is in the form of mentorship or sponsorship, supporting each other helps to promote social progress through encouraging individuals who may lack confidence to feel able to reach their potential. No matter what position you are in, there is always someone whom you could help.
As a mentee, your mentor does not have to be someone who shares all your experiences, but there can be elements of different individuals which you admire that you can adopt. By being open to recognising aspects of people that you value over a diverse spectrum, you can build your understandings and abilities.
Be kind to others. Have the ability to understand that sometimes people have not had the opportunity to experience or be educated in the same manner you have, and for this reason cannot relate to or understand your experience. Recognise difference and try to empathise and connect with it rather than reject it.
“Put your money where your mouth is”
There is no easy solution to creating a more diverse and inclusive culture. Time, initiative, creative thought, and dogged determination are necessary to progress the social shift. An example of this was in the Law Diversity Access Scheme, which tried different methods such as blind recruitment, prescriptive interview questions, and a focus on aptitude shown in each individuals’ circumstance rather than educational degree to combat existing social biases. This demonstrates the level of commitment to innovation required, and as each company faces its own individual issues, the requirement that they are involved in making this commitment in order for progress to happen is inevitable.
The result is that Simon Davis’s initial question remains unanswered but encouraged the panel to share their experiences in a manner which asks us (the audience) to question who we are, what that means, and how we can participate in finding the solution. It forces us to reflect on our own experiences, as well as question what our understanding of the status quo is, and if necessary, how we can work together to change it.