The On-Going Fight for Greater Diversity and Inclusion Takes Center Stage at Women’s Leadership Forum

Topics: Corporate Legal, Diversity, Law Firm Profitability, Law Firms, Leadership, Legal Executive Events, Women’s Leadership Blog Posts

Women's Leadership

NEW YORK — The battle for gender diversity, especially for members of the legal profession, has entered a crucial new phase, according to members of the opening panel at Thomson Reuters Legal Executive Institute’s Women’s Transformative Leadership Forum, held this week.

The necessity to “make the business case” for diversity is no longer as important because almost all firms, companies and organizations have come to recognize that lack of diversity is an institutional problem that needs to be openly addressed, said Patsy Doerr, Thomson Reuters’ Global Head of Corporate Responsibility & Inclusion. “We may no longer have to make the business case in the current world, but we do need to get on with the work,” she said.

And that work includes making sure that top-level management is engaged on diversity issues, areas of unconscious bias and blindspots are acknowledged and addressed, and strategies to provide tools for combating these biases and encouraging inclusion of diverse voices are developed and employed. “It takes time,” Doerr said. “And you must have a multi-faceted approach to it.”

Two members of BMO Financial Group discussed how their firm, one of the largest financial service companies in North America, made the journey toward greater diversity and inclusion for women executives and others.

To change such a large organization requires “changing many mindsets”, said Bindu Dhaliwal, Associate General Counsel & Director of Environmental, Social & Governance at BMO Financial Group (and one of the Co-Chairs of the Forum). “And it takes time to re-orientate the ship.” One of the first steps an organization must take is to identify and acknowledge that their employees and management do in fact hold unconscious biases that may disadvantage certain employees even if they do not intend to do so.

That is why taking steps to blunt the impact of these unconscious biases and provide employees with the tools to remove these barriers is vital, Dhaliwal said.

One of the first steps an organization must take is to identify and acknowledge that their employees and management do in fact hold unconscious biases that may disadvantage certain employees even if they do not intend to do so.

Sonya Kunkel, Chief Inclusion Officer & Vice President of People Strategies & Insights at BMO Financial Group, agreed, outlining a multi-year plan BMO Financial followed (and is still following) to increase the number of diverse voices heard around the table.

BMO identified early on its diversity numbers were lacking, even as by 2011 about 30% of the company’s senior leadership positions were held by women, Kunkel said. “There was a feeling we had plateaued, and we wanted to re-engage our leadership and re-ignite our commitment to this.” So, in 2011-2012, the company worked to “set the stage” for more diversity growth by engaging company leadership, recognizing that a multi-pronged strategy had to be employed, and setting representational goals.

By 2013, the company was ready to start removing the barriers that many saw as contributing to a lack of diversity, including those in job interviews, performance reviews and staffing talent for outside roundtables or panels. “This allowed us to tackle the individual mindsets that can put up barriers, even unconscious ones, that hinder our diverse groups,” she explained.

A panel discussion at LEI's Women's Leadership Forum

A panel discussion at LEI’s Women’s Leadership Forum

In later panels during the Forum, other leaders agreed that such planning was a great help to achieving better diversity results, and offered similar advice:

  • “The important factors to strive for in this approach is consistency, good metrics and getting to the table early with solutions,” said Anilu Vazquez-Ubarri,Chief Diversity Officer & Global Co-Head of Talent Development, Goldman Sachs.
  • Ona Alston Dosunmu, Vice President & General Counsel of The Brookings Institution, noted how important the cause of diversity is to her organization. “Obviously, the business imperative is clear,” she said. “For us, having diverse voices has allowed us to avoid missing things we should be talking about and then contribute to public dialog in a real way.”
  • Indeed, Lee Miller, Global Chair Emeritus, DLA Piper LLP, aptly summed up many of the Forum’s planning discussions, saying that organizations need to “plan for diversity, benchmark it, and make it part of the organization’s culture and management. That’s how you can move the ball on diversity.”