Diversity debate needs diversity

Is the diversity debate going off on the wrong tracks? Inclusivity and diversity are about ensuring that an organisation has a healthy mix of people who feel motivated to succeed, regardless of background. If people feel comfortable and valued in the workplace, they’ll perform better.

However, instead of the hoped for explosion of creative thinking, there are worrying signs that the debate is starting to form theoretical tramlines. Just last week at The Lawyer’s diversity conference (16 May), Justice Minister Bridget Prentice railed against firms for their tardiness in not providing statistics.

Statistics are important; if a law firm is refusing or unable to provide them, it shows that it doesn’t really have a handle on its own workforce. You can’t manage what you don’t measure, as they say. Unfortunately, too many law firms are approaching diversity purely from a compliance perspective.

Statistics are themselves problematic, because the very way they are couched is culturally specific. Diversity is not just about counting heads, and it’s certainly not about importing a US model that’s based almost exclusively on its own historical experience of ethnicity.

There are all sorts of ways how not to ask the question. For example, is a Chinese lawyer working in Shanghai for a global law firm really part of an ethnic minority?And how do you measure ethnicity in Central Europe? Posing the question in German-speaking countries is culturally out of bounds; in fact, in Austria it’s illegal. The question of cataloguing by ethnic background has awful historical resonances.

And I’m not entirely convinced that US firms are further ahead of the game than the UK firms in any case. You’d be hard pushed to find a US firm that publishes its diversity statistics on its website, for example. In the UK the more creative firms are rightly beginning to examine the difficult concept of class and access to the legal profession in the first place.

If you’re a global firm, a ‘one size fits all jurisdictions’ diversity policy is a contradiction in terms. Instead, law firm managers are going to have to get a grip on each jurisdiction’s political, economic and cultural history. It’s a big job, but in the long run it’s a lot more important than ticking boxes.