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Making diversity a New Year's resolution

All of us want better diversity outcomes, whether in respect of gender, race, disability, age or otherwise, writes Bryony Binns.

Yet the WGEA's 2016 Gender Equality Scorecard shows only modest year-on-year improvements in key areas of female workforce participation. And the AHRC's 2016 report Leading for Change: A blueprint for cultural diversity and inclusive leadership is a good read, but it's hard to get past the introductory statistics, which lay bare the cultural homogeneity of the status quo.   

While considering when to start this year's latest fad diet, it occurred to me that our collective, industry diversity resolutions sometimes suffer from trending preoccupations. In eagerness to make changes for the better, we rush to the 'next big thing' to make a difference. We've cycled through unconscious bias training and male agents of change, jumped in and out of e-learning, mentoring (or, for the more adventurous, speed mentoring), while hotly debating targets, quotas and everything in between. In the meantime, change remains frustratingly slow.

Many of the barriers to gender participation in the legal industry are inherently and unforgivingly structural. Yet so much industry discussion on diversity is focused on next-thing, non-structural policies and programs. To be blunt, no amount of cacao nib protein balls or green matcha milkshakes will get us to where we need to be if our underlying fundamentals aren't right.

Before committing to 2017's diversity juice cleanse regime, perhaps we should spend some time thinking about what might actually work for our industry.

As an employment lawyer, it has always been a great privilege to peek into the diversity efforts of other organisations. It's an opportunity to collect anecdotal evidence, and speak to clients and partners about what is working and what isn't. Here are some of their (collective) pearls of wisdom to assist in reflection:

Look for answers within your own organisation

Looking outwards to what others are doing is helpful, but it isn't always easy to translate someone else's success to your own context. If there are examples of successful outliers in your organisation, it pays to think about what made them successful. I don't mean surveying your outliers for their own views (although this is also helpful). I mean looking for personal or organisational similarities that apply to your outliers. Seek out  hidden patterns of success or failure in order to try and understand underlying causes and potential solutions.

Importantly, tracking patterns (and not just whether quotas or targets are being met) is fundamental in assessing whether policies and procedures have been effective over differing horizons, and in exposing structural impediments or supports.

Read, read and read some more

There is now a wealth of literature about what researchers think does and doesn't work in diversity policy, and structural challenges to enhancing gender diversity, including in the legal industry. If senior leaders are really interested in making a difference, they should dedicate time to educating themselves.

Sure, it's more time-efficient to have someone summarise at you (and even to pay them to do that). But, as all lawyers know, the devil is in the detail. Decent strategy requires diligence and thoughtful contemplation, neither of which can be outsourced to a management consultant. Podcasts are good, too, for the time-poor. Check out Freakonomics Radio's Women are not men (#116) and What are gender barriers made of? (#253), Reply All's Raising the Bar (#52), and TED Radio Hour's Beyond Tolerance (22 April 2016). 

Care, and don't stop caring

Diversity change is a long game. Many diversity programs generate immediate engagement and enthusiasm (and sometimes short-term gains on the back of focused efforts), only to have their effectiveness ebb over time. 

With all the other pressures that come with running a professional services business, caring about policies and programs can be hard graft. Caring about people shouldn't be. If senior leaders genuinely care about the people in their organisations (because they know them and appreciate them) then checking in on how they're tracking needn't be a separate agenda item at a committee meeting.

It's worth remembering that we make New Year's resolutions about things that are generally good for us and others. Here's hoping that this year, we find some that stick, for a more diverse 2017 and beyond.

Bryony Binns is a partner at Baker & McKenzie, working in the firm's Australian employment law practice.

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