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Inclusion is not only about ethnicity or gender: is social diversity the answer?

Bola Gibson is Head of Inclusion and Corporate Responsibility at international law firm Osborne Clarke.

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Bola Gibson, Head of Inclusion and Corporate Responsibility, Osborne Clarke

Inclusion is not only about ethnicity or gender

Traditionally when people think of the legal sector a stereotypical image springs to mind of an elitist profession with high levels of privately educated people from what would be considered privileged backgrounds.

Now, as the world changes, so are those who practice the law. And recent statistics show this is the case, with the Solicitors Regulation Authority, our governing body, finding diversity is steadily increasing.

But, while we are under no illusions, the sector has a long way to go and looking at social mobility may be the answer.

Work by the Social Mobility Commission has shown us that a low ability child from a high-income family is 35% more likely to be a high earner than a high ability child from a low-income family.

In law, a 2019 study found that you are 17 times more likely to become a lawyer if you have a parent who is a lawyer. Social mobility, or social diversity as we call it, matters.

When we think about social mobility, organisations tend to focus on how they can help those from less advantaged backgrounds access their profession and the opportunities it has on offer.

However, we don’t often look internally at ourselves, and what we can be doing to support colleagues who come from socially diverse backgrounds.

Sharpening data sets

Data is a hugely powerful tool and effectively harnessing it is an essential step in making gains in this area. As the old adage goes, if you’re not measuring, you’re not managing – and if you’re not managing, you’re probably not progressing at the rate that you want to be.

Companies are increasingly becoming more sophisticated in measuring diversity data. At Osborne Clarke we recently started collecting enhanced diversity data about our people, including data about their social diversity characteristics. This means we track engagement, attrition and promotion trends among our socially diverse colleagues.

The data showed that while we have high levels of social diversity in our leadership ranks, it wasn’t very visible. This lack of visibility, as we learned from our socially diverse colleagues in our listening sessions, meant there were assumed to be few role models and some who felt they had to present a certain way to fit in.

These listening sessions helped the group identify the need to raise awareness of the experiences of socially diverse people within the organisation as well as educate colleagues about a number of micro incivilities that others had not yet considered. This included debunking assumptions around accents and educating people about the impact of language.

The data also enabled our social diversity network to work with our race and ethnicity network on the challenges affecting both their audiences, driving home the importance of viewing diversity through an intersectional lens.

Focussing on the inclusion of our socially diverse colleagues is one part of the puzzle. Getting social diversity through the door in even greater numbers is the other challenge.

Broadening the talent pool

Once the environment for inclusion has been created, organisations can aim to attract more socially diverse talent to their door. We’re doing the work to really understand and scrape away traditional biases that limit access to the legal profession.

For example, we now offer full solicitor apprenticeships and target our recruitment into those roles at socially diverse young people for whom university isn’t an attractive option.  In other instances it is about where we recruit as well as who we recruit.

Many organisations place higher value on the institution that someone attended (e.g. Russell Group university) to the detriment of the candidate; we may ask for experience gained from a certain type of ‘City’ institution as a badge of quality.

These badges limit the pool of diversity that we can dip into. There are many reasons why someone from a less disadvantaged background may not have attended a top university or been able to get a role at a ‘city’ institution. By only fishing in that small pool, we’re baking in the disadvantage that our socially diverse talent have already faced in their career.

Formalising work experience and apprenticeships

Work experience continues to be an area of real challenge for organisations to address. Informal short work experience opportunities are still too often offered on an ad hoc basis driven by personal contacts. We have developed our formal work experience programmes to remove the influence often brought to bear by an individual’s position, status or relationships thereby levelling the playing field.

Establishing programmes with impact

Finally, linking programmes that might seem unrelated presents another great opportunity to drive greater social diversity in an organisation. We recently launched The Bridge – the firm’s first holistic, long-term schools partnership, which aims to facilitate access to the legal profession and sector for young people from diverse backgrounds. The programme is linked to both our CSR as well as our D&I goals, with schools chosen because they fit certain demographic profiles and the programme of activity targeted towards building aspiration and a talent pipeline into the profession.

Social diversity is rising up the agenda everywhere. Like gender, ethnicity, LGBTQ+ and disability before it, social diversity is an issue that will shape the engagement and inclusion of our people and therefore our businesses. It needs all our attention.

Bola Gibson is Head of Inclusion and Corporate Responsibility at international law firm Osborne Clarke.

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