Our 30 June event on allies and supporters was a huge success. Here one of the organisers, Joanna Thurston from our North of England network committee, reports on the key outcomes. She has also kindly recorded a podcast version of her report, which you can access here.
Thank you again to everyone involved in organising this event (particularly since it had to be converted from the originally-planned multi-centre discussion to an online version as a result of Covid-19): our North of England and Midlands networks, all five of our networking and support communities, and of course the chair Vanessa Stainthorpe and her fantastic panel of speakers.
ALLIES AND SUPPORTERS: HOW TO BE ONE AND THE BENEFITS IT BRINGS
TUESDAY 30 JUNE 2020, 3 PM, VIA ZOOM
This event, hosted by IP Inclusive’s North of England and Midlands networks, took place online with an attendance of around 100 people from across the profession (and the country). A reschedule from the original face-to-face event planned for March, we’re very grateful to IP Inclusive for their support in converting this event into a purely online format.
Building upon the popular London event on “Allies, advocates, and supporters” held in January 2019, we hoped to provide an opportunity for attendees to share personal experiences and to learn how we can all better support our diverse communities. We were lucky enough to be supported by some highly knowledgeable speakers who shared their experiences as well as offering insights for both employers and colleagues wanting to be allies, supporters and advocates for each other.
After the presentations, there were some lively discussions in Zoom breakout rooms where people shared thoughts and ideas on a wide range of the issues raised around allies and support.
So, before we look at some of the topics in more detail, we want to say “thank you” to the speakers – Martyn Fish from HGF, Jonathan Fogerty from CFG Law, Kingsley Egbuonu from Managing IP, David Ewing from BAE Systems and Parminder Lally from Appleyard Lees – to the hosts of each breakout room, and to all of the attendees for their parts in making this such an enjoyable and at times thought-provoking event.
Starting from a discussion title of “Allies and Supporters: How to be one and the benefits it brings”, the speakers and breakout discussions covered a wide range of topics, which stimulated debates around, among others:
- the roles of allies and mentors in improving diversity and inclusion,
- practical steps that can be taken to become an ally,
- practical steps to improving corporate diversity,
- whether ally and mentoring schemes can be successful in the absence of genuine corporate commitment to improving diversity and inclusion,
- the problems of tokenism, and
- the ongoing need to engage the sceptics (events like this are, after all, preaching to the choir).
The role of allies and mentors in improving diversity and inclusion
The speakers shared the view that being an ally means being supportive, by offering a listening ear or a helping hand to anyone in need, and that the role can be as big or small as the individual is comfortable with. For instance, we can all be allies simply by treating those in under-represented groups in exactly the same way as we treat everyone else. Specifically, by treating them fairly and equally – valuing them for what they can do and who they are. It was discussed by Martyn and Kingsley (speaking on behalf of IP Out and IP & ME respectively) that sometimes barriers are created because we are worried about causing offence by asking questions, but that one of the key aspects of offering support as an ally, is understanding that it’s better to ask and get it wrong, than to not ask. It can be the experience of minority groups that those around them don’t ask even the simplest questions, such as “how was your weekend?” So ask, and don’t be afraid of the answer! Even small steps of this kind were felt to go a long way to creating an environment of inclusion and openness.
The importance of creating an open environment, where everyone can share how they’re feeling, was discussed by Martyn and Jonathan (who represented IP Ability at this event) in the context of understanding the daily challenges that may be being faced by minority groups. Even if the workplace is inclusive, the outside world may not be, and it can be a comfort to be able to share those concerns. It was felt by many that by creating a safe environment for employees their productivity – and the corporate bottom line – can be improved. Jonathan noted the particular need for those with physical disabilities to be supported, as to work effectively they may require slightly different working practices and environments than others. This is an issue less often encountered by other minority groups. Martyn, on the other hand, raised the issue of it not always being obvious that you’re in a minority, for instance if you’re part of the LGBTQ+ community. In some instances this leads to a situation where you have to regularly come out to new people, and make choices about whether to be open with clients. This is very different from the situation encountered where any prejudice might be gender- or race-based, making the situation for LGBTQ+ individuals, and also for people with disabilities that aren’t immediately visible, more complex in some senses.
For these reasons, it was felt that the impact that the support of allies can have on a business is enormous; and as an ally, helping to create a fairer, more just, workplace where everyone can give their best is hugely rewarding.
The importance of mentoring was also raised – by Jonathan and Parminder (who was present on behalf of Women in IP) as speakers and by attendees in the breakout sessions – as an invaluable way of promoting inclusion and also potentially diversity. For instance, it was felt by some that offering mentoring to graduates seeking to join the profession could help to encourage under-represented groups into the profession, with ongoing mentoring during the early stages of their career. Indeed, whether or not someone is in an under-represented group, it was felt that having a mentor to guide and focus the mentee on areas of their job that will help them to progress, is beneficial. Ideally, a mentor would share a common background or experience with the mentee, and it can be difficult to find suitable mentors, particularly in small organisations. With this in mind it was suggested that an independent, cross-corporate, mentor scheme could be of benefit to all.
Practical steps that can be taken to become an ally
David Ewing, an ally at BAE Systems, speaking on behalf of IP Futures, shared with us some of the key aspects of being an ally. The first of these was held to be self-awareness; for those wishing to become an ally understanding your own prejudices so that you can consider them and rise above them was held to be vital. Added to this, is a willingness to learn. Accepting where you are now and taking the time to research the issues helps understanding and better equips you, as an ally, to offer the support that is often needed. Then comes the willingness to stand up and be counted as an ally, to be visible so that people know (without mind-reading) that you will be there to support them. Then finally, perhaps the most difficult but important part of being an ally, being prepared to take action. No matter how small (for instance, asking a simple question about how someone is feeling, listening to their reply and being genuinely interested in their answer) or large (such as challenging the status quo or calling out inappropriate behaviour) you need to be prepared to take action. That might be uncomfortable, you might need to call out your friend or your boss, but having the courage to make a difference is part of the reward for being an ally.
David and Martyn also discussed that setting up an allies network can be easy, but that you do need support from the leadership within the company (in terms of time and money). The first step would be gathering together a group of individuals who want to be involved, then setting up a launch event – which even if simple and small doesn’t take away from the symbolic value. The allies need to consider how to create ongoing visibility, and promotional materials will almost certainly be needed. The holding of regular events in key thoroughfares within buildings (lobbies or kitchens for example) can work well to keep the network on everyone’s radar.
Practical steps to improving corporate diversity
It was good to hear that many of our speakers have had mostly positive experiences in their workplace environments, some feeling that there had been no negative impact on their career at all. However, it was widely acknowledged that the battle is far from over and much still needs to be done. Indeed, Parminder asked the question of whether, if we all know about discrimination, why is this still an issue and what do we need to do to stop it?
Martyn and Parminder– together with many attendees in the breakout sessions – noted that the profession remains dominated by straight, white, middle-class men. This is particularly true when you look at the demographic of those within senior roles. Looking at a recent CITMA survey of a focus group of BAME IP practitioners (shared by Kingsley), 93% of the respondents felt that our profession is not diverse. Kingsley referred the audience to CITMA’s article on diversity in the March 2020 issue of the CITMA Review, which also used data from IP Inclusive’s 2019 benchmarking survey. He also noted that it would be useful to have more data on diversity in the profession. Discussions, particularly in the breakout rooms, covered a wide range of suggestions to change the image of the profession and improve this situation. Suggestions included encouraging companies to change the focus of their websites, holding special events targeted at minority entrants, mentoring, the sharing of personal experiences, and sending a more diverse range of staff to career events.
It was also questioned whether recruitment materials paint a true picture of a firm: are they full of minority groups for marketing purposes, and when does this constitute tokenism? If the intentions are good, is tokenism of this type acceptable? Regardless of the answer – no consensus was reached – it was felt that the more diversity that is visible within the profession, the more the profession will be seen as a safe and welcoming place for minorities and that over time such marketing can only help.
Considering the gender imbalance, Parminder noted that by being aware of gender discrimination and bias, men can play a vital role in supporting women by challenging inappropriate comments, ensuring that their female colleagues have the opportunity to be heard and that they receive credit for their ideas.
The need for genuine corporate commitment to diversity and inclusion
Martyn commented that a company can only be truly diverse and inclusive if the message and the commitment comes from the top down. It was widely agreed that this has to be a true commitment, with genuine support and visible action from senior staff, not just corporate (LGBTQ+) flag waving or the required wearing of lanyards. It was felt that for those in a leadership position it is part of their job to create an inclusive environment, and to do that, they need to have a mind-set where they truly believe that change is needed.
Actions that could change the culture were discussed as including commitments to recruit the best talent regardless of background, which could include looking in non-traditional places for that talent (for instance, outside the Russell Group universities). The need for a truly open culture was also held to be important. In an environment where people can talk honestly and openly without hiding anything and without fear (on either side), people can be happy and feel welcome. This was held to be vital for staff recruitment and retention. Further, it was noted by David that there is an increasing scrutiny of corporate responsibility policies both by potential recruits and by potential clients, such that in the absence of a considered and active allies program, client work and future staff could be lost.
Finally, Parminder raised the issue of whether companies need to consider whether their promotion criteria are accommodating to under-represented groups – are changes needed to accommodate their needs and recognise their specific talents? Comments were made that perhaps a one-size-fits-all career path is inappropriate, or even discriminatory. She also stimulated discussion around whether submissions to publications such as Legal 500 should be representative of the diversity within the company, and where such submissions are clearly lacking in candidates from the less well-represented groups, whether this should be queried by the publication.
With regard to the issue of tokenism, Parminder and Kingsley noted that it’s self-evident that no-one wants to be a token; this goes against the wish to be treated fairly and equally. In the breakout sessions there were comments from minority group delegates that they don’t know whether they had been put forward as part of tenders, or promoted, purely because they ticked a box. They raised concerns that they would never truly know whether they’d earned their opportunities on the merits. Discussions were also had around whether companies should withhold their endorsement for awards which are gender-specific, and whether when organising an event there should be an insistence on speakers from minority groups. Given the current potential pool of speakers in our profession, it was held to be a difficult balance between being representative and organising an event with the most technically-qualified speakers.
Engagement of sceptics
The ongoing issue of how to engage with and convince the sceptics also came up, primarily in the breakout rooms. Mind-sets can often be entrenched to the point where it is difficult to even elicit an acknowledgement that there’s any problem with diversity. So how do we engage the sceptics? Suggestions included fact-based approaches around the “bottom line”, for instance based around reduced staff turnover; another suggestion raised the idea of asking IPReg to modify the CPD criteria so that attendance at, at least one, IP Inclusive event per year became mandatory. Allies were also suggested as having a role in helping to educate the sceptics.
This event was both enjoyable and thought-provoking, with more take-home messages than can be provided here. However, a theme that seemed to run through the entire session was that to create a diverse and inclusive workplace culture, talking and seeking to understand are vital. With this in mind, the presence of allies and mentors at all levels of a company seems key. Given support from their companies, allies and mentors can be empowered to change workplace cultures, providing environments of openness and understanding where no one need hide who they are or where they’ve come from.
IP Inclusive North of England Committee