How to Start Diversity and Inclusion Efforts—and Keep Them Going


Jathan Janove, J.D. By Jathan Janove, J.D. January 10, 2020
three men and one woman await job interview

The following anecdote is drawn from multiple accounts and has been fictionalized to preserve privacy and confidentiality.

A law firm specialized in intellectual property (IP). Its clients ranged from multibillion-dollar international corporations to small start-ups. It helped its clients with patents, copyrights, trademarks, nondisclosure agreements, and other ways of protecting inventor and corporate IP. It also litigated IP disputes.

With one exception, the firm had grown and thrived. While women held most of the administrative positions, a majority of the professional entry-level associate positions were men. The gender imbalance grew at the next level of advancement, "senior associate." The imbalance became even more pronounced at the partner ranks.

Overwhelmingly, the people with the most power and most money in the firm were older white men. All members of the governing executive committee (EC) were men. Men chaired all other committees such as compensation, client development and professional education. In most cases, the other committee members were men.

Unrest grew. The women who had become senior associates and partners expressed frustration and resentment that their numbers were so small. Female professionals at all levels felt that they weren't given opportunities and support for professional growth and development that were comparable to what men received. There had been internal complaints of gender discrimination and bias. No one had yet sued, but firm leaders were aware of the possibility.

Externally, the firm had come under pressure to diversify. More corporate clients were making diversity an important criterion in choosing which law firms got their business.

Ironically, one response to this pressure led to an internal gender discrimination complaint. To placate a corporate client, a senior male partner brought along a female associate to a trial. He had her sit next to him at counsel table so that she would be visible. However, he gave her no substantive work or responsibilities. She felt demoralized by this experience and complained to HR.

Eventually, the EC decided it needed some sort of D&I initiative. It instructed the firm's HR director, "Susan," to engage an outside consultant to develop and implement a strategic plan to fix the firm's diversity problems. The EC expected Susan to work closely with the consultant while making sure that the EC was kept in the loop.

After the EC announced its intention to the firm's partners and associates, grumbling arose from a few senior male partners. Comments included: "We don't discriminate against women. If they're willing to work as long and hard as I do and make the sacrifices I've made, they will receive the same rewards." Typically, the men making such comments had spouses who had taken primary responsibility for raising their children. Another pushback statement was, "It's not our fault. IP attorneys typically come from engineering, science, math and technology backgrounds. Most women choose not to follow those paths."

Another concern arose, perhaps in part heightened by #MeToo publicity. Some male partners said they didn't want to be alone with women to whom they weren't married; they tended to follow the so-called Pence Rule. "Unconscious bias" presented another challenge. Susan was quite sure these factors had resulted in lost professional opportunities for female attorneys, including client visits, business travel, trial work, mentorship and professional growth advice.

Here are the D&I steps the firm took:

  1. A D&I Committee was formed, co-chaired by a female partner and a male partner.
  2. The D&I Committee created a list of all other committees and their members. It proposed timetables by which there would be female members and, subsequently, female chairs for each committee.
  3. Workshops were held to address unconscious bias and the "Pence Rule."
  4. Successes were publicized internally. These included 1) a male committee chair saying "I was looking for a successor" and passing the chair to a female committee member, 2) a senior male partner who let Susan know he brought a young female associate to an important client visit and that she did very well and 3) a former "D&I resistor" who told Susan he was now on board and was actively touting the firm's D&I initiative to his clients.

But there also was resistance. Some male partners made excuses for not taking action at either the committee or individual level. In one case, a senior male partner complained to Susan: "This is BS! Maybe I need to join another law firm!" This expression of hostility caught Susan by surprise.

Results after 18 months: Measurable improvement? Yes. Perception of positive change from the firm's female attorneys (and many men)? Yes. Better gender demographics? Yes. Mission accomplished? Not quite yet.

I put this scenario to several experienced professionals passionate about D&I. Here's what they had to say.

 "D&I can't simply be a goal or an initiative," said Colleen McManus, SHRM-SCP, a senior HR executive with the state government of Arizona. "Everyone may feel better about a D&I 'program' and a few of the numbers might even change, but, for true D&I to happen, we have to change the culture." She explained that cultural change is what moves an organization "from mere tolerance to full acceptance."

"Keep the emphasis on problem solving, the health of the firm and fairness," said Isaac Dixon, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, associate vice president of HR at Portland State University in Oregon. "Anything that looks like personal score-settling diverts energy and attention. Many men feel 'blanket blamed,' and the resulting hostility makes real progress difficult. Resentment is not progress. Understanding what the issues are and what needs to change should be the desired outcome."

McManus said she has seen organizations experience real "aha" moments when "good organizational intentions combine with sensitivity in execution." Simple events can be turned into celebrations of diversity. "One organization had an annual potluck and invited people to bring a dish from their own heritage or background.  We asked them to share the recipe, and talk about what the food meant to them," she said. "Many shared memories of their families, their communities and their customs as they shared their recipes. All who participated said they truly appreciated the experience, and much more so than if they had to go through some kind of mandatory training."

Fatima Ribeiro, director at Ribeiro Coaching and Consulting in Panama, has experienced positive results with D&I when the process includes coaching, mentorship, sponsorship, support networks and assistance in leveraging relationships and developing a personal brand.

"D&I is a necessity in our global society as the best talents come from different origins, races and genders," she said. "Companies that don't work on this will be less competitive, less desirable and less successful."


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