The economic and moral case for ethnic diversity in the workplace is well-rehearsed. McKinsey’s 2018 research on diversity in the workplace revealed that companies with the most ethnically diverse executive teams are 33% more likely to outperform their peers on profitability. This is a compelling business case. An equally important driver for success is the moral case for diversity, which is underpinned by a commitment to equality, respect and fairness – it is about doing what is right.
Increasingly, organisations are talking about diversity and inclusion as a key priority in their business strategy. In the legal sector, there has been commendable progress over the past ten years in the attraction and recruitment of diverse talent: The proportion of BAME1 individuals entering the legal profession has almost doubled in ten years, from around ten per cent in 2006 to around 20% of trainee solicitors.
However, there remain challenges in improving ethnic diversity in the mid-to-senior ranks of the profession. The levels of attrition for BAME solicitors as we move up the professional ladder are worryingly high and mean that only eight per cent of partners are BAME2, and those of African/African Caribbean origin comprise just one per cent of partners in large firms3. This is happening during a period when more ethnic minorities than ever before are entering the profession.
WHAT CAN WE DO TO CREATE MORE BAME LEADERS IN THE LEGAL PROFESSION?
If we are to raise the aspirations and prospects of the current and next generation of BAME lawyers, firms need to act now to bridge this retention and progression gap. There isn’t a quick fix to this persistent issue.
In my view, the first step is to begin to have conversations at all levels about racial equality (or lack thereof) in the workplace. How else can leaders truly understand what the barriers to BAME employee career progression are and tackle them meaningfully? Chief among those barriers is the existence of bias (whether unconscious or not) at various stages of the employee life cycle, a lack of career support or development and a dearth of visible role models. I’d like to see these three steps adopted:
BUSINESSES MUST LEVEL THE PLAYING FIELD
They should demonstrate a clear commitment to BAME talent management and progression as a key part of their business and growth strategy and embed this throughout the organisation at all levels. For example, Linklaters recently launched a development programme to support BAME talent in advancing their careers. A unique feature of this programme is that it brings together participants with their line managers and partners, enabling dialogue across different demographics. Participants have the opportunity to challenge leadership practice, learn new techniques to achieve high quality feedback and identify a strategy for onward development.
The Black Solicitors Network (City branch) has been working at tackling the progression issue for BAME solicitors through its Creating Pathways Through Mentoring and Sponsorship programme4. This structured yearly programme pairs talented mid-level BAME lawyers with senior counsel/partners who provide mentees with access to insights and perspectives on professional development from outside their organisations, with tangible success.
BUSINESSES MUST BE ACCOUNTABLE
They should measure and monitor diversity through the employee life-cycle from recruitment to promotion, attrition and remuneration (including ethnicity pay reporting). This includes establishing a comprehensive diversity action plan and aspirational numerical targets for recruiting and promoting BAME talent. They should report internally and externally against these measures annually to drive performance and success.
BUSINESSES MUST BE INCLUSIVE
Just as important as recruiting and developing diverse talent is making sure that this talent feels a sense of belonging. Businesses need to create and foster an inclusive working environment or culture where individuals feel valued, respected and engaged and have the opportunity to thrive and excel regardless of their background or identity. This can be supported by initiatives such as reverse mentoring, mandatory inclusive culture training and having a range employee-led network groups that celebrate diversity and embed a sense of inclusion.
Leaders need to be the change they want to see in the workplace otherwise there is a risk these measures will be operational and not lived.
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