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Law firms look to take lead in minority ethnic inclusion

Recent studies have shown just how little movement there has been when it comes to the career progress of Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people in UK organisations. But moves are afoot in the legal sector to pave the way for real change, writes Adam McCulloch

According to Business in the Community (BITC) research only one in 16 people at senior levels in the private and public sector are from a BAME background. And people from a Black African or Black Caribbean background hold just 1.5% of leadership positions. This has barely changed since 2014, when the proportion of Black people in leadership positions was 1.4%, despite the fact that Black people make up more than 3% of the population in England and Wales.

Meanwhile, a team from the University of Bristol, the University of Manchester and the National Centre for Social Research analysed national census data from 1971 and 2011, covering more than 70,000 people in England and Wales, and found that ethnic inequalities of the 1970s were still apparent and particularly disadvantaging men and women with Bangladeshi, Black Caribbean and Pakistani heritage.

The reports were published as the Black Lives Matters campaign intensified after the 25 May killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis and conversations, such as the one that led to TV historian David Starkey losing his publishing deals and academic status, have revealed that racism is still very much at large in the UK.

BITC’s Race at the Top report looked at senior professional roles in the UK including politics, journalism, charities, civil service and the judiciary.

The proportion of Black people in senior roles in the public sector was static at 1%, an increase of just 0.1% since 2014. Almost two-thirds (62%) of charity boards are all-white, BITC found.

Just 1% of the police force identifies as Black African or Black Caribbean, and there are no appeal court judges who are Black (out of 39).

Representation has improved in politics, where there are currently 65 MPs in the UK from the BAME community, compared with 27 in 2010. BITC points out, however, that there are no Black Cabinet ministers.

Only one in 16 people at senior levels in the private and public sector are from a Black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) background.

Only 1% of journalists, senior civil servants, judges, academics and the police force are Black.

Sandra Kerr CBE, race director at BITC, said: “Twenty-five years on from the Business in the Community’s Race Equality Campaign being launched, it is clear that Black people continue to be under-represented at a senior level.

“The challenge for the legal sector is to be truly representative of society as a whole and clients in particular. Law firms talk a good game and direct discrimination, is thankfully rare.” – Paul Robinson, HR Director, Trowers & Hamlins LLP

“Black livelihoods matter and employers need to take urgent action to ensure that their organisation is inclusive and a place where people of any ethnic background can thrive and succeed.”

Last month a group of business leaders wrote to the Sunday Times pledging to set diversity targets for every job vacancy in a bid to improve BAME representation.

The letter, signed by leaders such as Dave Lewis, chief executive of Tesco, Penny James, chief executive of insurer Direct Line Group, and Kevin Ellis, chairman and senior partner at consulting firm PwC, said “this cycle of inaction and disengagement must end”.

“As business leaders, we need to talk about white privilege. We need to talk about racism. We need to talk about the role we have played in maintaining this system for so long.

“Finally, we need to talk about how we will change. By signing this letter, we pledge to set targets for diverse candidate slates for every vacancy in our companies. Now is the time to act.”

Inequality rife since 1970s

The authors of the academic, census-focused study concluded that the ethnic inequalities in the 1970s had survived the past four decades and particularly disadvantaged men and women in Bangladeshi, Black Caribbean and Pakistani groups.

“These findings would appear in keeping with work exposing the ethnic penalty which continues to affect the access of minority groups to employment and the ways in which persistent racism limits access to positive socioeconomic outcomes, including social mobility,” says Dr Saffron Karlsen, senior lecturer in social research, University of Bristol.

For Professor James Nazroo, University of Manchester, there is “sufficient consistency to suggest that this is a problem produced and perpetuated at the societal level. Addressing these inequalities will not be resolved by a focus on particular individuals or cultures and their perceived limitations, rather the focus should be racism, discrimination and their consequences”.

Professor Binna Kandola, senior partner at workplace psychology consultancy Pearn Kandola, told Personnel Today that it was important to gain a full understanding of how racism at work affected careers: “What’s important, as we review this data, is that we correctly understand the phrase ‘persistent racism’. We’re not talking about minorities persistently being verbally or physically abused. The type of racism that they are likely to persistently receive in the modern workplace includes being ignored, interrupted or accused of overreacting when raising concerns.

“This type of abuse can have dire consequences. Minorities will constantly check themselves in the workplace and feel excluded. They will struggle to join networking groups and make valuable connections, limiting their chances of advancing to high-profile roles.

“To persistently receive this treatment is exhausting, and eventually, many will even begin to suffer from ‘racial fatigue’. This, in turn, leads to counter-productive behaviour, such as comfort eating and excessive drinking.

Legal sector initiatives

With the aim of bolstering the careers of BAME employees in the legal sector and to remove barriers that may impede promotion, top legal firms including Allen & Overy, Dentons, Linklaters, Slaughter and May and Travis Smith, have recently signed up to the Race Fairness Commitment (RFC).

Clifford Chance is among the signatories and has also introduced targets in the UK and US for 15% of new partners and 30% of senior associates and business professionals to come from minority ethnic backgrounds.

Signing up to the RFC involves a commitment to close analysis of quantitative data and monitoring throughout lawyers’ careers, which will identify the points at which BAME lawyers are unfairly falling behind their peers. Firms have also committed to decisive steps to ensure that race and racism are better recognised and talked about internally.

The organisation behind the initiative is Rare, a diversity recruitment specialist, which stated that while most leading City law firms now recruited cohorts of graduate trainees that were as ethnically diverse as the population, and in many cases more so, “ethnic diversity at entry level has not led to sufficient ethnic diversity at management level”.

Research conducted by Rare earlier this year suggested that many Black, Asian and ethnic minority lawyers did not find their firms’ cultures to be inclusive. That research showed that BAME lawyers spent on average 20% less time at firms than their white colleagues before leaving. Rare’s research echoed a recent YouGov poll, which found that half of Black Britons had experienced racism at work.

Segun Osuntokun, managing partner at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, comments on the need for a more concerted effort to promote BAME careers within law: “The uncomfortable reality is that despite great strides to improve diversity across the legal industry, we have failed to make enough progress on racial equity. As a senior Black partner I am conscious of the small minority I represent. It felt important to me personally to take a stand and demand that firms make themselves more accountable for change. The legal industry has a responsibility to ensure the focus on tackling racial injustice we are seeing right now is not a moment in time. If not now, when? If not us, who? If not this, what?

“It is time to make a difference. This commitment helps to send a strong message to Black students and Black junior lawyers that while, as firms, we may not have achieved enough change in the past, we are determined to ensure that the future will be different.”

Raph Mokades, founder and managing director of Rare, adds: “What seems possible in terms of racial justice has shifted this year, and the Race Fairness Commitment is about real change. It’s a brave step for the law firms to take, as well as a necessary one. It goes beyond merely not discriminating, and it goes beyond the usual diversity and inclusion activities you see at many organisations. For law firms, it’s about recognising a problem and hunting it down, and I’m delighted that so many have taken this major step.”

Paul Robinson, HR Director at Trowers & Hamlins, says: “The challenge for the legal sector is to be truly representative of society as a whole and clients in particular. Law firms talk a good game and direct discrimination is, thankfully, rare in my experience. Most firms would consider themselves to be meritocracies, therefore any positive action towards an under-represented group, be it gender, race or social background, can be perceived to be ‘lowering the bar’ when in reality it is simply the levelling of opportunity.

“The RARE initiative offers a real potential for change in that its focus is on practical steps and demonstrable results. As a result, it is more likely to successfully influence change in the sector, particularly when it comes to the experience of Black people as so often BAME stats disguise what I suspect is an under-representation across the sector. As ever, the results will not come overnight, but come they will and firms must be judged on them, on the figures they achieve, not on the initiatives they support.”


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