Diversity: far from female only

by 11 Mar 2010

Workforce diversity must go farther than just hiring and promoting women, writes Angela Priestley

If diversity was based on nothing more than com parisons between the number of women and men in a company, then many organisations, particu larly in the legal profession, would appear to have made considerable progress. Although there is still a long way to go, the ratio of women in senior positions has risen dramatically over the last couple of decades.

But could the focus on the number of women in senior positions within a company detract from the wider issue of diversity?

For more than a hundred years, the face of cor porate Australia has predominantly presented a pic ture of a white Anglo-Saxon male who presents to his fellow employees as heterosexual. The profession has long been accused of maintaining a “boys’ club” – one that also captures a picture of acceptable socio- economic status in its net.

On a superficial level, things have changed. Many organisations now have diversity policies. They even have individuals who have the word “diversity” within their job titles. In the brochures and information para phernalia of big organisations – on their graduate pro grams, employment opportunities and the like – many companies also claim they hire individuals from all walks of life.

While many organisations appear to live up to such claims, one need only look around the boardroom table to quickly determine the extent of diversity in the upper echelons of corporate Australia.

The focus on women

A recent study from Equal Employment Opportunity Network of Australasia found that, for most organi sations, gender diversity is a much bigger priority than other elements of diversity. The study of best practice organisations found that 75 per cent have a focus on women, but only 5 per cent a focus on sexual orien tation, and just 14 per cent focus on nationality as well as religion. Another study by the Economist Intel ligence Unit revealed similar results, indicating that in most parts of the world, most diversity efforts rely on the hiring and promotion of women.

According to Juliet Bourke, a consultant at Aequus Partners, diversity has been on the agenda for some time in professional services firms, but it’s often narrow in focus. “It’s really been focused around gender diversity and it hasn’t focused more broadly than that,” she says.

Not only that, diversity is often focused on numbers: how many women are on the board, how many women are entering the firm. Could such a focus on statistics be distracting us from the real diversity game?

Bourke believes that numbers can provide the “canary in the coalmine” for the progress of a diver sity initiative, but not necessarily an all-encompassing analysis on what’s actually going on.

A matter of inclusion

More importantly, such female-centric numbers may not necessarily reflect other facets of diversity. Accord ing to Dawn Hough, director of the newly launched not-for-profit group, Pride In Diversity, Australian firms are significantly behind their US and UK coun terparts when it comes to comprehensive workplace diversity programs.

Hough’s organisation helps employers facilitate programs that extend diversity initiatives into the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) com munity. Such initiatives do not talk directly to sim ply upping the number of people who are “out” in organisations, rather they aim to assist the gay and lesbian community in feeling a sense of inclusion within their workplaces.

According to Hough, addressing the needs of gay and lesbian employees is simply not on the agenda of diversity programs. “You typically find that most diversity practices in organisations [are about] women in leadership, flexibility, indigenous, disability, and then more and more we’re getting into age,” she says. “LGBT is the one that is most commonly left off.”

But LGBT might be just the group of individu als that law firms should be seeking to address. Hough points out that studies indicate that up to 10 per cent of the population may fit within the LGBT group – accounting for the fact, she says, that many individuals would not openly tell their colleagues that they identify with this group. In terms of staff retention, ensuring that this group feels a sense of inclusion – no matter how open an employee chooses to be about their sexuality – must surely be important for a law firm that wishes to stay ahead in the talent war.

Even more important than the talent war is the wellbeing of staff within a law firm – particularly for LGBT individuals who choose to not disclose their sexuality at work. Those individuals that cannot be easily be identified, may go through a process of self-editing their conversations to avoid personal questions or even to the point of creating false identities – a process that may lead to added stress and anxiety in the workplace.

With alarmingly high rates of depres sion already present in the legal profession, a lack of diversity programs around the gay and lesbian community could further exacerbate this issue.

The shifting face

When it comes to cultural diversity in Aus tralian workplaces – including law firms – says a representative from the Diversity Council of Australia, Catherine Petterson, cultural diversity appears to be a low pri ority at the senior management and board levels. A 2009 study by the Australian National University found that a barrier to entry into Australian organisations for minority cultural groups is common, and the recruitment process itself presents notable levels of discrimination for partic ular cultural groups – which means that individuals are affected before they even turn up for a job interview.

Flexibility in the workplace is another area of diversity that must be addressed. It’s easy to automatically assume that flex ibility should apply to women with chil dren, but that sells the issue short. A culture of flexible working in Australian law firms will impact on many groups – both male and female.

While some law firms manage flexibil ity well, the very culture of private practice can hinder progress in this area. Law firms are often known for their long working hours, which usually come back to the process of hourly billing. Can flexible work places truly be accepted if such structures remain in place?

The introduction of the Fair Work Act’s National Employment Standards may help, with all employees now able to access “flexible” working arrangements.

The impact on the bottom line

In today’s current employment environ ment, diversity is certainly a welcome ideal for an organisation to have, but does it actually make a difference to the bottom line?

According to a recent study by the Uni versity of Illinois on the business case for diversity, it does. The study compared 506 for-profit US organisations on their sales revenues, customer numbers, market share and profits in relation to the gender and racial make-up of their employees. It found that those organisations with greater racial and gender diversity performed better on all measures of organisational success. Bourke believes this research shows that diversity is linked to innovation, creativity and better customer service.

And with increasing business being generated for Australian law firms in Asia, the business case for diversity is fur ther enhanced. Firms can no longer afford to merely hire individuals to fit in with the “old boys’ club”. Firms require expertise in language, cultural sensitivity and religion – elements found in a diverse workforce that cannot simply be taught to employees.

Then there is also the need to keep up with the desires of clients. “Companies are wanting to engage lawyers who have a similar approach and philosophy to the company in a number of respects,” says Petterson. “This includes diversity in the people law firms employ. Increasingly, in tenders, law firms are being asked to show a commitment to diversity and var ious CSR initiatives. If they don’t align, they won’t get on the panel.” A diverse group of lawyers should also assist in allowing them to better deal with a diverse range of client briefs.

The club still exists

While a good majority of graduates coming into the legal profes sion these days are women, a quick look at a top-tier law firm’s “people” section of their websites will reveal significant dispari ties in numbers that exist between men and women at partner levels. However, that’s not to say that law firms are not making significant progress.

While a 2008 study by the Economist Intelligence Unit found that diversity in Australian workplaces centres on the hiring and promotion of women, Petterson says that there is still a dearth of women in leadership positions within such workplaces – and she maintains that the situation over the last couple of years has actually been getting worse.

“The gender pay gap persists despite decades of EEO (equal employment opportunity) programs, strong anti-discrimination legislation and significant pubic discussion,” says Petterson. If we can’t even equalise opportunities for women in the workplace, can we count on much hope for other minority groups?

Modern-day lawyers come in all shapes and sizes. While the progress of women in law is an achievement that should be applauded; it should not for a moment fool us into believing that diversity in law actually exists.