Breaking down the barriers
For most younger lawyers, it's difficult to think about the profession as other than LGBT friendly, but that shouldn't be taken for granted, says Pippa Allsop
The continued and increasing focus on the importance of promoting diversity in the legal profession is extremely encouraging, and seeing that we are currently in the 14th LGBT History Month 2019, it seemed pertinent to pause on this particular strand.
It was tremendously heartening to see Pinsent Mason LLP not only feature in Stonewall’s Top 100 Employers list for 2019, but to be named as their Employer of the Year, making the firm the UK’s most LGBT-inclusive employer.
In total, 16 of the 100 organisations listed were law firms. Stonewall is a charity which partners with organisations to promote LGBT workplace inclusivity, by creating “accepting cultures” and “empower[ing] institutions as advocates and agents of positive change”.
Their maxim is “Acceptance without exception”, an important ethos for all employers and employees to embed and nurture, especially as, for instance, last year, 18 per cent of staff say they have been the target of negative comments or conduct from work colleagues because they are LGBT.
For someone who has only been in the legal profession six years it is difficult to envisage a time when employers did not actively support LGBT staff.
However, there is still much that can be done to further improve the existing situation. Although the ‘white heterosexual male’ stereotype is not exclusive to the legal profession it is certainly one of the most predominant within it.
So it is particularly poignant to see a law firm top the board for LGBT inclusivity - leading the way, rather than simply accepting the status quo.
Even with improvements in the workplace that promote equality and diversity, statistics show that today, 35 per cent of British employees hide their sexual orientation at work for fear they will be discriminated against.
According to Stonewall that figure rises to 42 per cent for black, Asian and minority ethnic LGBT staff and to 51 per cent for trans staff.
Even without the fear of outright discrimination or verbal and physical abuse from colleagues, it is important to consider the negative effect of the day-to-day mental gymnastics that are required of an individual who does not feel comfortable enough at work to be open about their identity, when having (what should be) straightforward conservations with their colleagues about their personal lives.
Just as with gender discrimination (although obviously the two cannot be so neatly separated) - education is key. A greater understanding of different sexual identities benefits employers, employees and consumers alike.
It is not enough in itself for employers to focus on LGBT-centric policies and programmes; they also need to address common misunderstandings and the potential for unconscious bias towards anyone.
To ensure real and continued progress, non-LGBT people need to have a deeper understanding of their own behaviours and how they affect those around them, and employers can support this reflection by providing support in a variety of ways.
Most employers understand that promoting and supporting workplace diversity is not only morally right, it makes good business sense too. Six percent of the population in the UK identifies as LGBT+, and so employers who fail to provide and foster an LGBT inclusive workplace environment will be failing to attract and retain a significant number of individuals.
While it may be unpalatable to make the ‘business sense’ argument in connection with an issue that should without question be embraced and promoted whether it is profitable or not, if this business angle provides momentum for change, then it can be viewed as a means to a positive end.
The focus though, is of course not just on employees and employers. Increasingly clients and consumers want to be sure that they are dealing with likeminded individuals and institutions who are doing their best to embrace LGBT inclusivity and workplace diversity.
LGBT history month is undoubtedly a time for reflection but also for loud and energetic discourse about what is required for continued progress.
There is no doubt that it is the ongoing dialogue and combined efforts that will eventually result in a society where future generations find it impossible to imagine a time when there were still barriers to break down.
Pippa Allsop is an associate at Michelmores