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The path from diversity to equity
"It's only a meritocracy if everyone actually gets an equal opportunity to sit at the table"

December 2020: Maja Hazell, Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion at White & Case, reflects on a seismic shift in awareness of anti-Black racism in the US in 2020, and offers advice to aspiring Black lawyers.

“What’s required now is to be actively and vocally anti-racist”

"What we've seen this year—in this Firm, across the legal sector and across the US—is a turning point. The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many others have galvanized an urgent new focus on outcomes for Black people and the systemic nature of anti-Black racism,” says Maja. "People are realizing that it's not enough to abhor racism. What's required now is to be actively and vocally anti-racist. Furthermore, there is a wide understanding that racism exists not just in individual acts, but within entrenched and largely invisible systems that perpetuate inequality."

"Whatever has been done before is simply not enough"

Maja expands on what this shift amounts to in practice, within the legal sector and beyond. "Whatever has been done before is simply not enough. The first step requires senior leaders and middle management alike to have difficult, challenging conversations, as we have done at White & Case. At this Firm and in many other firms and enterprises, there has been deep reflection on where processes and policies have been complicit in maintaining the inequitable status quo, and on what needs to change."

From diversity and inclusion to equity and parity

Maja explains the journey from "diversity" to "equity" and finally "parity," and the importance of this evolution. "Diversity is the first step, simply increasing the numbers of underrepresented people within a workforce. Inclusion follows, creating an environment that is supportive for everyone, then promoting and living our common values." 

She continues, "Yet we also need to consider equity, to look at outcomes for people and improve systems and processes to account for the challenges they face. It's about asking the question: Despite all our diversity and inclusion efforts, who is being left out and why is that happening? It's only a meritocracy if everyone actually gets an equal opportunity to sit at the table. Ultimately, parity is the goal." 

Mitigating against disadvantages

What sorts of systemic changes might be required? "Unconscious bias is something that can be mitigated against at a personal level—here at White & Case, we have provided extensive unconscious bias training, for example. But if you are part of a minority group, you may not have the same social capital as others, nor the connections that can lead to mentorship or business opportunities. In order to get to the point where you can be evaluated on the same unbiased basis as others, you may still need additional support." 

“Rethinking and ultimately redesigning systems that create invisible barriers”

She elaborates on some of the actions that law firms and corporations must take in order to level the playing field. "It requires rethinking and ultimately redesigning systems that create invisible barriers to progress for some groups. You need to overlay demographic data on outcomes of hiring, evaluation and promotion processes, and interrogate disparate results. It's critical to closely track outcomes and keep recalibrating approaches and practices based on the results. Where are the pinch points? Where do outcomes differ? You must also invest in formal mentoring and sponsorship programs to facilitate valuable personal connections and mitigate against certain disadvantages that will thwart diversity even with the fairest formal systems."

Finally, she notes that when you focus on improving outcomes for Black talent, you will likely improve your processes, programs and practices for all. "Racial and ethnic minorities and women are often canaries in the workplace coalmine: Their success or lack thereof is a fair indicator of whether aspects of your culture are generally toxic for all. They are simply less likely to survive it, falling through the cracks absent intentional efforts to support them, and will leave. If you fix your firm for the groups having the worst outcomes, you will improve it for all and be a far stronger organization. 

Advice for aspiring Black lawyers:  Ask potential firms for data

Maja advises Black law students to question potential employers in detail about their track record of recruiting, developing and retaining Black lawyers. "Ask for data and expect to get it. How much have the numbers—for example, Black lawyers moving up from associate positions to leadership roles or to the firm's partnership—changed in the past five years? Is there a full-time team focused on diversity and inclusion? What professional development support and resources are available? Is mentorship or sponsorship part of a formal program? Is there an active affinity network? Ask about work allocation. What types of pro bono cases addressing racial discrimination or benefiting the Black community does the firm take on?" 

"Firms are paying attention"

She notes that firms' achievements with respect to diversity may differ, but a solid commitment to future plans is vital. "Ask about a firm's diversity plan and strategy for the next few years. What's their trajectory; what are their aims? A recruiter will be able to get this information for you or connect you with a partner or associate for a candid conversation." 

Maja is optimistic for the next generation of Black legal professionals: "There is no better time to be starting your career than now. Firms are paying attention in the wake of this racial reckoning. Supporting the well-being and professional success of Black employees is a high priority for many employers now." 

"People at every level are taking on personal responsibility to be anti-racist" 

After a year of both tragedy and accelerated change, what has been the most significant change, in Maja's opinion? "For me, it is the bottom-up, grassroots support for change. People at every level are taking on personal responsibility to be anti-racist. They're asking, could I do better in the fight against racial injustice?  Could my team do better?  How can I open doors, extend my network, share my own platform to advance others?" 

As 2020 draws to a close, Maja reflects on a momentous time. "In a short space of time, my own long-held beliefs and priorities have become everyone else's. There's still a great deal to do before we achieve true equity. But we have made a start, and we have real momentum. It has been occasionally overwhelming, but I feel energized and recharged for the next stage."

Read "Anti-Black Racism to Allyship: From Learning to Action" by Maja Hazell here

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