Today’s blog article has kindly been written by Rhys Williams and is a reflection on his thoughts on diversity and inclusion, from the point of view of a self-“confessed” white, Oxford educated male. Rhys is a partner in Abel & Imray’s Cardiff office, and a member of the firm’s diversity and inclusivity group.  Abel & Imray are one of our Charter signatories.

Rhys writes:

I’m a white, Oxford educated, male, so why should I care about diversity?  After all, at my firm we employ graduates from both Oxford and Cambridge, so how much more diversity do you need?  I suppose we could start looking at Imperial…

My background is fairly liberal, from a family with a mother who did two Open University degrees when we were small, and who fought the coal board in the 1970s for equal coal allowance (and who certainly has short shrift with any sexist behaviour or jokes).  I went to a comprehensive school in a middle-class town, and a small, liberal Oxford college known for being an LGB college and taking the most state school students.  My paper of choice is the Guardian (though I did throw my Birkenstocks out a few years ago).  I sort of assumed that the battle had been won, that no one needed to be marching for equal rights etc. as who would discriminate against someone because they were a woman, gay, lesbian, black, disabled?  This is 2017, not 1977.

I listened to experiences of female university friends, many in mainstream professions working for big, multinational companies, with some scepticism that the sexist comments they reported were really made, or whatever was said was misinterpreted by someone looking to be insulted.  But these stories began to build up, and I realised that whilst some major battles have been won, there are many forms of discrimination and bias that continue to affect people every day.

I’ve never been mansplained to.  I’ve never been in a meeting where a client has described their invention to my junior male colleague instead of me.  I’ve not worried about how or when I mention to my colleagues that I am gay, or suffer from a physical or mental health problem.  I’ve not attended networking events where, amongst a sea of grey suited, white middle-aged men, I am the only female, or ethnic minority.  (Unfortunately, as time goes on, I am looking more and more like those grey suited middle-aged men).  I’ve not wondered whether by getting pregnant, I was also damaging my chances of being promoted.

It seems to me that many of the present issues are caused by a lack of understanding, or a lack of empathy, between people in the workplace, rather than because of any conscious decision to treat people differently.  Whether that be making assumptions about someone, or ignorance of how they may be feeling or what motivates them to behave in the way they do.  Also, if someone perceives there is a barrier to them in the workplace, it makes little difference to that person whether that barrier is actually there or not.  You cannot simply state that the person is wrong, that the barrier does not exist – but rather think about what might cause that perception and take steps to address it.

For example, we have recently reviewed our staff appraisal process.  It has always been intended that it includes a discussion about future career goals.  However, some women may see clear ambition, and stating they are looking for promotion, as overly pushy in a way in which a male staff member may not.  So, in order to try and work around this potential reluctance to discuss ambitions, we have introduced a specific set of questions to ask in the appraisal which includes future career plans.  It’s hardly ground breaking stuff, and written down it sounds incredibly obvious and banal.  However, by trying to understand how someone else might be feeling, small changes in attitude and approach can have big effects.

Of necessity, this must be two way process.  The workplace is increasingly mixed, and with that comes a whole host of different backgrounds, beliefs, and customs.  It is unrealistic to expect anyone to be completely knowledgeable of all of them.  So, if someone says something that upsets someone else, it may not be intentional but simple ignorance.  This is not to excuse the ignorance, or blame the person who feels offended, but to emphasise the need to develop a work place culture where people feel free to speak up, and explain what their needs are.  Only by creating an environment where people feel valued, and that they will be listened to, will such communication take place.

Again, small changes we have made to try and do this include introduction of a mentoring scheme to give opportunities to talk to experienced colleagues without the inhibition of the discussion being with a line manager, and adding suggestion boxes to each office to allow anonymous comments about the workplace to be made.  Hopefully, showing that we are willing to listen and actively encouraging dialogue in the workplace will help bring these subtle problems into the light, improve our understanding of each other, and help dispel various worries that people might have about how they will be treated.

Being part of our firm’s diversity and inclusivity group has been an eye opening experience.  We often disagree about the things we talk about, but to me this embodies the whole point of embracing diversity.  It’s very encouraging that the profession as a whole is looking closely at access, diversity, and inclusivity issues.

Thank you, Rhys, for your thoughts and for letting me persuade you to share them! If you would like to write a blog article for IP Inclusive, on anything diversity related, please email Emily Teesdale of Abel & Imray. Guest bloggers are always very welcome!

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