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Diversity - Will Business Ever Believe in Change?

Posted: 21/10/11 10:51

In the 1987 film The Secret of My Success, Michael J Fox's character endures a string of knockbacks at interview so by the end of a gruelling day and feeling increasingly desperate he begs: 'I can be anything, just give me a chance...' 'Can you be a minority woman?' the interviewer replies.

While amusing for its comedy timing this is a divisive issue which challenges many of us at a personal level by questioning received wisdom about justice and opportunity. Is the employer's stance correct? Are arbitrary targets to expand minority groups' representation within an organisation the only certain method of improving diversity? Do we need to improve diversity at all?

Almost 25 years on from Brantley Foster's fictional escapades in New York, here in the UK boardrooms remain staggeringly male dominated with just 12.5% of publicly owned companies appointing women to director-level positions. This topic has gained traction as recently as 11th October with the UK's Corporate Governance Regulator updating its Combined Code to include a requirement for those companies to report annually on their boardroom diversity policy, including gender.

My own industry, legal services, has similar obligations to face up to over the coming years, after regulators declared us a sector too commonly associated with one that favours privilege and upbringing over the promotion of social mobility. The Solicitors Regulation Authority has now made the active promotion of equality and diversity by Law firms a key principle that they should all abide by.

This has led to a stampede of conscience amongst the UK's largest law firms with many big names publishing their own diversity statistics. While being an immensely noble effort these stats tell us a great deal about what we already knew, that the demographic background; ethnic, gender and disability-makeup of a law firm will often reflect a customer base whose' circumstances tend to mirror its own - it's good for business.

Our firm has also undergone an exercise to promote diversity for the principal reason that while our practice is broad, we represent working people on a daily basis. Our commitment to them and the laws which protect them from exploitation or prejudice has to be reflected in our corporate makeup. So instead of publishing statistics we looked outside for independent verification of what we were doing. Our regulator offers limited guidance on how law firms should consider operating, and there is no universally recognised accreditation akin to Investors in People so we enlisted an independent group to interpret our policies in relation to equality and corporate social responsibility.

For those of you craving a stat, we have 31 partners and 17 of them are women so with regards to that particular indicator our equality mission is on target. Nevertheless, providing opportunities for people from disadvantaged backgrounds or with disabilities remains a challenge for us as an employer and requires continual self-analysis in order to justify our policies on recruitment, our ties with educational establishments and myriad other considerations.

Received wisdom, and the established way of doing business are in the context of promoting diversity in the workplace just another definition for prejudice. It doesn't surprise me that fewer than 15% of FTSE 250 directors are women, nor that 97% of law firm partners are classed as white; what continues to shock me is that so few of us genuinely believe that this will ever change.

 

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