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Law departments ‘have the power to be proactive and drive change’

Diverse teams outperform homogeneous ones, says one corporate counsel, and law departments have the capacity to push for improvements – particularly in the wake of new findings showing little progress being made in diversifying ASX 300 board composition.

user iconJerome Doraisamy 16 April 2024 Corporate Counsel
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In conversation with Lawyers Weekly, Laing O’Rourke corporate counsel Belinda Wong (pictured) – speaking in her capacity as national vice-president of the Asian Australian Lawyers Association – noted there is a “wealth of research” showing that diverse teams outperform homogeneous ones.

“With multiple perspectives, diverse teams are better able to identify a wider range of risks and opportunities and to navigate complexity,” she posited.

“A board that shares its demographic breakdown with its stakeholders is also arguably better able to understand and serve those stakeholders. Further, diversity at the board and executive level is attractive to young professionals with talent, particularly those from under-represented groups, often putting a premium on an inclusive work environment.”


“With a very diverse community available, there is a chance to leverage this diversity to tap into the advantages above and ensure the health and success of Australian businesses.”

Her comments follow the recent release of the 2024 Board Diversity Index, produced by Watermark Search International and the Governance Institute of Australia.

The report revealed minimal changes in the composition of ASX 300 boards compared to previous years and described them as “stale, male and pale”.

When it comes to diversification at the board and executive level, Wong detailed the role that the law department can and must play.

“Ensuring compliance with anti-discrimination laws falls within the in-house function, but these teams have the power to be proactive and drive change!” she said.

“Legal teams can foster diverse talent within their own ranks; they can help review and develop policies and procedures impacting on diversity and inclusion, such as those pertaining to flexible work and recruitment practices, thereby removing barriers to progression, and attracting talent; and they can advocate for diversity amongst suppliers, such as driving initiatives to engage suppliers from under-represented backgrounds, helping the boards and executives of those businesses to thrive.”

Practically, Wong went on, there are a number of steps that professionals can take to improve levels of diversity.

“When someone is considered for a board or an executive role, outdated and superficial notions of what a ‘leader’ looks like should be discarded,” she said.

“Practical steps to achieve this can include: bringing more people from diverse backgrounds into decisions as to hiring and promotion; removing identifying information that may trigger preconceptions of an applicant’s abilities at earlier stages of the hiring process; and introducing measurable criteria for the role that de-emphasises the role of connections – connections which people traditionally barred from power structures may not have access to.”

Of course, Wong added, there is also the use of targets and, more controversially, quotas.

When asked how hopeful she is that such improvements can be made in corporate Australia, particularly if corporate legal teams are involved in driving such change, Wong said that “with the groundswell of support for diversity and inclusion in recent years, there is every reason to be optimistic”.

“I have seen a lot of ‘firsts’ during my career here in WA. However, we can’t be passive and need to be the change we want to see,” she said.