Parminder Lally of Appleyard Lees will be one of the panellists at our next event on “Allies and supporters”. This event, a collaboration between our North of England and Midlands networks and our five communities, was due to take place in March 2020 but unfortunately had to be postponed (see here). We’re now working on a remote-access alternative – so keep an eye on our Events page for details (update: see here).
In the meantime, Parminder has sent us this brilliant, thought-provoking piece about the role of “allies” and how that’s likely to change as we emerge from the coronavirus lockdown. We hope it will whet the appetite for some fantastic discussions at the event itself.
Two months ago during a day off from work, I went on a lovely head-clearing 16 mile walk through the Lea Valley from Essex to East London. Today, I will take around 16 steps between my “desk” and my kitchen several times a day. Life has changed quickly and dramatically for us all due to the global pandemic. Many hope to return to “normal” soon, and many claim to be doing “business as usual” right now. However, the old life, the “normal”, the “usual”, was not working for many of us in the IP professions – after all, this is why IP Inclusive was created.
In March, I was due to speak at IP Inclusive’s North of England event on why the “normal” did not work for everyone, and what allies can do to improve the workplace or working environment. We are in the process of determining a new date for the event, but in the meantime, I want to start the discussion on why allies are important and what role they may play in the “new” normal.
I believe our profession is less diverse and inclusive than other parts of the legal sector because we tend to stick to worn-out, old-fashioned ideas such as that we can only be successful and advance our careers by putting in (or being seen to put in) long hours in the office, that events and conferences must be in-person, that connections must be made by repeated overseas business trips, that client meetings have to be in-person, and that hearings and trials have to be face-to-face so that you can stare down your opponents (which is a rather macho approach). We exclude and make life unnecessarily harder for so many people by holding on to these ideas: people with caring responsibilities, people who seek a good work-life balance, people with disabilities, people who cannot travel easily, and so on.
Accidentally, we have experienced a huge revolution in how, where and when we work in the IP professions, which means some of what I was going to say at the event is now redundant, as long as we don’t revert back to the old “normal” when restrictions on movement are lifted.
For example, I have always supported the ideas of flexible working hours and working from home for everyone in the IP professions, regardless of their job title, length of service or other “qualifiers”, and without needing to jump through hoops. Sometimes, we need to work from home because we need to look after a poorly child, or because we need to be around to let in a builder, plumber or electrician, or because we have a personal appointment at an awkward time of day that makes travelling to the office a waste of time. Sometimes, we may want to work from home because it is quieter and we need to concentrate on a difficult task or study. Some people are simply not suited to the 9-to-5, and would be more productive if they started work two hours earlier, or three hours later, or had a longer break in the middle of the day. As an ally, it seems I may not need to continue advocating for flexibility when the lockdown ends. I sincerely hope that those who said flexibility was impossible or impractical have now learnt to be more compassionate and open-minded about how we can operate.
Similarly, Jonathan Fogerty from CFG Law, one of the other speakers at the postponed event, has remarked that for years, disabled people have been requesting “reasonable adjustments” in the workplace, and one such reasonable adjustment might be the ability to work from home for a day or part of their working week. However, such requests were turned down by employers, often because of the, now clearly nonsensical, belief that people need to be in the office to work with their colleagues and to be available for clients. Hopefully, requests for adjustments will be viewed differently from now on, but of course, we may still need to advocate for improved accessibility in offices.
Another positive outcome is that so many events that were due to take place in reality have been turned into online, virtual events. Technology allows us to listen to talks, and network with speakers and participants, without needing to arrange childcare, travel and overnight accommodation. We talk to our clients and have hearings via video calls. Similarly, we are more accommodating of people’s needs to work or have meetings at particular times of day. Mental health and wellbeing are being taken seriously. Lunch breaks are again valued as free time rather than being seen as a chance for a “working lunch”. Of course, in-person events, hearings, and meetings will return when the lockdown ends, but I hope that everyone in the IP professions will continue to offer a virtual option and flexibility to ensure we remain inclusive.
The current lockdown has made some aspects of the professions more inclusive, but some things have not changed, and we will continue to need allies to support each other and to advocate for change. To illustrate why allies are important, and why we all need to think a little harder about our behaviours in the workplace, let me tell you about some of my experiences over the years as a BAME woman in IP.
I have been asked to make tea during a client meeting by a male colleague, and I have shuffled awkwardly in my seat as men have started guffawing about sex toys in a meeting that was to discuss inventions in a completely different tech space. I have experienced “invisible woman syndrome” when people direct their comments and questions to a male trainee in a meeting instead of the qualified female attorney sat in front of them. People spell my name wrong in replies to emails I have sent them, call me “Mr Lally” in letters, or noticeably hesitate or stumble on the phone when they hear a female voice instead of the male voice they were expecting. The EPO can only conceive of female attorneys as being married and refers to me as “Mrs Lally”. I have repeatedly, almost proudly, been told that I tick two boxes with respect to diversity. People see my brown skin and think it’s okay to ask me when Ramadan is this year. People have asked me if I was born in England, “where I am really from” and whether English is my first language. I have a thick skin but nevertheless, these experiences during the old “normal” (and others I’ll tell you about when the postponed event takes place), made me feel that the IP profession isn’t for someone like me, that I am not “normal” and do not fit in. I wish that people around me had realised that this behaviour is unacceptable and upsetting. Nobody should be made to feel like this, which is why I have promised to do my best to support others and to make the IP professions more inclusive and welcoming.
So, what can you do to make your colleagues, clients and counsel feel comfortable? I think one of the simplest things to do is to try not to make assumptions about people, and to understand that everyone is different. Think about if you would behave in the same way with or ask the same questions of, for example, a white colleague or a male colleague.
We will be exploring this in more detail at the event which is in the process of being rescheduled soon, and may be taking place virtually. In the meantime, let’s start the discussion online: let us know what lockdown changes you hope will remain when lockdown ends, what you miss from the pre-lockdown days, and what allies may need to focus on improving in the future.
Page published on 4th May 2020
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After 37 years in the IP profession, I would have hoped things would have improved. My first job had me greeted by pornographic pictures left on my desk, the next job had me also making tea for meetings (despite being group IP manager), listening to wolf whistles as I crossed the shop floor and an older male colleague asking if I understood a basic circuit diagram (despite having a degree in physics). With few people to turn to higher up the organisations I often just took it on the chin, although a couple of older, more seasoned male colleagues, helped me resolve the pornographic pictures episode. Allies have always been important and continue to be. Those of us who are now a bit long in the tooth should make sure that we support our younger colleagues to navigate the workplace safely and productively and with respect.
It’s an important conversation to have now. Make the most of this opportunity to build on the experience of WFH, the lessons of best practice, because there will always be people who cannot envisage different ways of working across staff. The battles I had back in the day on this point were numerous. Despite proof of concept over decades, for every request the rebuttable presumption was inevitably No, and the rebuttal was onerous and stressful.
Yep. Making assumptions is old-fashioned. I'd rather people ask me direct questions.
For most of my working life, I have never been subject to issues such as those you mention (apart from the "name" bit – it never ceases to amaze me that even on an e-mail which I signed off as DEBRA Smith, people don't take the trouble to look and obviously decide that I can't spell my own name, thus addressing me as DEBORAH)! I can only imagine the tangles that they get into with your name! I also get the "Mr" all the time, but that doesn't bother me because being tall, often wearing trousers and having short hair I am quite often assumed to be a man even when people meet me face-to-face. This probably goes some way to explain why I have never experienced the same difficulties as you in meetings and so on. Having been on the receiving end of much bullying when I was growing up, as I got older I started to embrace the "differences" that had caused me so much upset when I was younger. I even started to 'enjoy' the obvious discomfort felt by other people when I pointed out that I was female. In a way, I felt it was a privilege to have the many advantages that my height etc. offered and I never really 'noticed' the differences in other people, in fact I tended to be drawn to 'different' people just because they were much more interesting. Fortunately, the first 15+ years of my adult life were a breeze and it wasn't until I had a progressive medical condition, which left me using a wheelchair that I really became aware of how unfair and cruel people could be, often without even thinking about it. Again, by this time I was older and senior enough that the worst of this behaviour was not directed at me, but at my colleague (who helped me a lot) purely because she was assisting me. For this reason, I think that it is also important that we consider how difficult it can be for "allies" as well as for the people that they are assisting. So yes, being an "ally" is a great and worthy thing to do, but we must not overlook the impact that this sometimes has on their well-being too.
Thanks for sharing Parminder. Looking forward to your further insights on the matter at the event once rescheduled. Abdul
Thanks for being so open and honest, Parminder. It looks like it will be a really interesting session and I hope that, as you have said, much of what you were planning to say will now be redundant. Vandita.