Race in the workplace

Farmida Bi, Norton Rose Fulbright EMEA chair, reflects on her experiences as an ethnic minority lawyer and what role law firms can play in ensuring equal opportunities within the profession.

Farmida BiWhen I started my articles in the City in 1990, the number of ethnic minority lawyers working in the large City firms was tiny. I was not infrequently mistaken by some colleagues for my more glamorous friend, which amused me and infuriated her. After all, we were both small, brown, women trainees and it was not surprising that some people thought we must be the same person. How could there be two of us?! Things have improved since then but not enough.

On 11 October, Theresa May launched the Race at Work Charter, an initiative designed to improve outcomes for black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) employees in the UK. The Charter was launched by the government in partnership with the charity Business in the Community, and the big four accountancy firms were some of the first signatories. I was delighted that my firm was also one of the first signatories, but not many large law firms have yet signed and I would urge them to do so.

This is a vital initiative, not least because the 2017 McGregor-Smith Review, ‘Race in the workplace’, found that people from BAME backgrounds were still underemployed, under-promoted and under-represented at senior levels, fifty years after the 1968 Race Relations Act was passed to make discrimination on racial grounds illegal. A survey published by Business in the Community revealed amongst other things that:

  • There has been an increase in the number of workers from BAME backgrounds who report that they have witnessed or experienced racist harassment or bullying from customers or service users.
  • Over half of BAME employees believe they will have to leave their current organization to progress their career.
  • The proportion of managers who report that they have a performance objective to promote equality at work has fallen from 41 per cent in 2015 to 32 per cent in 2018.
  • Employees have not reported any increase in the number of leaders demonstrating commitment and taking action since 2015.

The Charter is designed to foster public commitment by having organisations sign up and make a specific commitment to follow five principles to ensure they address the barriers to BAME recruitment and progression. These are:

  • appointing an Executive Sponsor for race
  • capturing data and publicising progress
  • ensuring zero tolerance of harassment and bullying
  • making equality in the workplace the responsibility of all leaders and managers
  • taking action that supports ethnic minority career progression.

These principles should be applied by law firms. In 2017, 18 per cent of solicitors came from BAME groups although, since one in five sole practitioners is from a BAME group, there is clearly a lack of representation of BAME lawyers in the larger law firms. Anecdotal evidence suggests that even when BAME lawyers join a firm as trainees or junior solicitors, they often do not stay and progress to becoming partners in the same proportion as their entry level numbers would suggest that they should. Law firms need to examine why that is and address any structural issues of fairness. I do not believe, as one person recently suggested to me, that the lack of representation in senior roles in firms is due to the fact that ethnic minority lawyers are ‘naturally entrepreneurial’ and want to set up on their own.

Most law firms are rightly focused on promoting diversity because it is about achieving fairness, but it also makes business sense. In a globalised marketplace our clients are more diverse than they have ever been, and if our workforces do not reflect the same diversity, we are less likely to understand the needs of our clients and communicate effectively with them. Promoting a diverse workforce can help us reduce the risk of unconscious bias and improve our decision-making processes. In an environment witnessing profound changes such as the consequences of the Global Financial Crisis and the UK’s upcoming exit from the European Union, it is more important than ever that our organisations can draw on a variety of viewpoints, and need to draw upon the widest possible pool of experience.

Law firms have traditionally looked at individual strands of diversity such as gender, race and class in isolation and have not looked at the impact of their policies in terms of how these elements intersect. A working class black person may experience very different issues in adjusting to the culture of a large City law firm when compared to another black person who may come from a vastly more privileged background. It seems absurd to put them in the same group based just on skin colour. A young Asian female solicitor may have issues networking that a white middle class female solicitor may not. Gender is not the only relevant issue. A properly diverse law firm should focus as much on supporting those who come from non-traditional backgrounds as it does on ensuring that there is not a bias against the promotion of women in general.

The strategies that are being used in addressing gender bias should be used to tackle the issue of racial bias. This has always been a much harder topic to deal with because, while the issue of gender allowed employers in the past to believe that women chose motherhood over their careers, there has been no equivalent convenient excuse for racial disparities in success. However, measuring and reporting how many BAME solicitors join a firm and when they leave, together with targeted career support and mentoring, is likely to produce a better retention rate with the accrued benefits that enhanced diversity will bring. Addressing the issue of colour is not enough without also understanding and addressing the effect of social class on how many large law firms operate. The concept of ‘intersectionality’ has to be better understood by law firms in order to provide a workplace which really allows an employee to bring their whole self to work each day.

I believe law firms have a vital role, and indeed could take the lead, in promoting the principles in the Race at Work Charter. UK law firms are now more open, global and meritocratic than ever, looking for talent wherever it is. Moreover, the prestige associated with our profession means becoming a solicitor is attractive to people from all backgrounds. This combination of our profession’s need to recruit the best talent and its appeal as a respected career means we could drive the changes that our society needs to make sure everyone has equal opportunities.

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