Banks beat law firms on gay rights issues

On 10 January Stonewall published its third annual ‘Workplace Equality Index’, showcasing the top 100 employers for gay people in the UK. This index is a national benchmarking exercise that students, employees, customers and clients can use in making career and supplier choices. The aim is to raise the bar for diversity in UK workplaces.

This year IBM won first place. Goldman Sachs and KPMG also made the top 10. Organisations such as IBM consistently support their lesbian and gay staff through network groups, marketing, senior support, role models, mentoring and professional development. They are also willing to improve, for example by introducing employee monitoring to measure performance going forward.

When it comes to the legal sector there are 12 firms that I would place in the ‘willing to improve’ category. These are the 12 firms that have joined Stonewall’s Diversity Champions programme. This number has increased from the seven since November 2006. Recent joiners include Olswang and Weil Gotshal & Manges. This is rapid and welcome progress in a sector that still has to demonstrate its willingness to embrace diversity.

Because it is early days, none of these 12 firms feature in the top 100 employers, but that is a situation we are aiming to change. Currently, no firms have a network group for gay staff, for example. Some firms are willing to facilitate their establishment, but all nine investment banks that entered the index already have such networks in place. Some law firms still do not have parity of pension provision for straight and gay people. In fact, we are aware of only one law firm in the UK that has complete parity of provision. With investment banks, this was rectified three years ago.

Investment banks are much better at supporting and engaging their gay staff. It is still early days, but when the legal and investment banking sectors are benchmarked against each other, the average performance of the investment banks is twice the score of the law firms. The average score of the investment banks was 78 per cent, compared with 39 per cent for the law firms. In terms of practice and policy, the investment banks are well ahead.

We are not about to name and shame individual organisations. We want to celebrate success when it does occur so as to encourage others to acquire good practice. We want more firms to follow the lead of Simmons & Simmons, for example. When the Department for Constitutional Affairs compelled all law firms to report monitoring statistics on gender and race, Simmons went further and was the only firm to also publicly display sexual orientation monitoring statistics.

This means that Simmons can quantitatively and objectively measure its progress going forward. It will have the data to know where it needs to focus its efforts most effectively.

Pinsent Masons has advertised in lesbian and gay publications and Herbert Smith has undertaken diversity training and an attitude survey on topics including sexual orientation.

Investment banks have been addressing workplace diversity for the past five years and they were once again the highest-scoring sector in this year’s index. Law firms are behind the curve, but by working with the 12 firms in our programme we are starting to address sexual orientation as seriously as race, gender, age and disability.

Sexual orientation discrimination at work only became illegal in December 2003. In the three years since we have seen law firms take the first steps beyond compliance to proactively embrace diversity. In the next three years I am confident that we will see leading law firms reaching the level of investment banks in terms of employee engagement. When we publish the index in future years, there is no reason why we shouldn’t see leading firms, such as Simmons, up there setting the standard.