The WorkLife Hub Logo
Podcast Length Icon 54:45 26 Jun 2021

How a global law-firm tackles diversity, equity and inclusion

It seems like there is an acceleration in the D&I space, with more issues being tackled more seriously. What are the most pressing D&I challenges professionals are having to work with, or the skills D&I managers and professionals need to be equipped with to be able to tackle the challenges? In this episode, Bendita Cynthia Malakia, Global Head of Diversity & Inclusion, and Fabienne Ruopp, Diversity & Inclusion and Wellbeing Senior Manager EMEA, of Hogan Lovells, provide us with their insight.

In this episode, we speak to Bendita Cynthia Malakia and Fabienne Ruopp of Hogan Lovells. To know more about the different Diversity and Inclusion initiatives of Hogan Lovells visit their dedicated page here. Below is the excerpt from the conversation, edited for length and clarity. You can listen to the podcast, either via the player above or on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or Google Podcast.

Agnes Uhereczky: welcome to the listeners of this episode of the WorkLife HUB podcast. I'm your host Agnes Uhereczky and today's episode is going to be quite special because I have not only one, but two fantastic guests on the line. We're going to be zooming in on diversity and inclusion. My guests today are Bendita Cynthia Malakia, who is the global head of diversity and inclusion at Hogan Lovells. And also with us is Fabienne Ruopp who is the senior manager for diversity inclusion and wellbeing for the EMEA region for Hogan Lovells, which is an international global law firm. So we're going to be covering a little bit both sides of the Atlantic and also looking into the future.

Thank you so much for being here Bendita and Fabienne. From where I sit, it looks a little bit like there's an acceleration in the diversity and inclusion space. I also feel that the issues are tackled more in-depth and maybe also taken more seriously. Maybe we're also tackling the more uncomfortable issues. What would you say are the most pressing D&I challenges that professionals such as you are now having to work with? What are the emerging or new things that you see coming your way? Let's start with you, Bendita.

Bendita Cynthia Malakia: Absolutely. Thank you so much, Agnes, for having me and my colleague, Fabienne, participate in this very current conversation. Diversity and inclusion has been a conversation in organizations in some parts of the world for decades. Yes, there are moments right now, which are causing societies and often the entire world to pay attention and be more engaged. The rise and fall and rise again of the #MeToo movement, followed by the groundswell resurgence of Black Lives Matter, which has had some resonance globally, and it's caused some organizations to assert a new commitment or to recommit, invest or invest additional resources to expand their scope with respect to diversity and inclusion. By October 2020, the modern lawyer article, the avant-garde, a fundamental rethink of the inclusion and diversity profession of the future notes many challenges which are very present for many in the diversity and inclusion role. I'll give three.

The first is that many still don't believe in the experiences of underrepresented people. They want data, they want stories, they want the business case and the moral case. You can give people all of that and sometimes it doesn't matter because at the root of it many of us live in very different worlds even in the same societies. We each have biases that are scientifically proven that we may not be aware of. But before you can solve a problem, you have to be aware of it. Many of us are still not aware of our own biases. And even if we are, we don't understand our culpability and the outcomes that we experience in our organizations. The second challenge for D&I professionals is that the diversity and inclusion function is often still viewed as an event planning function and a feel-good function.

We should instead be placed as strategic advisors involved in the vetting and oversight of processes throughout the business to ensure that there is not a disparate impact on underrepresented people. Additionally, we're often viewed as cost centres. However, in the legal profession specifically, we can align underrepresented lawyers to clients and ways that boost revenue for the firm, and contemporaneously meet both the client's organizational diversity and inclusion objectives and our own.

Additionally, I shepherd a justice equity diversity and inclusion or JDI consultancy for our clients, which is specifically revenue-generating for the firm and serves to provide a holistic ecosystem with which we can invest in our underrepresented talent while also generating profit. The third challenge that I'll know and then I'll hand over, we're not given enough resources or the authority to commensurate with the challenge that we're asked to solve. Diversity and inclusion is a huge priority for many organizations. But those organizations do not often offer the personnel or the financial resources to support the achievement of that priority. We are lucky at Hogan Lovells in particular to have two diversity and inclusion professionals based in Germany to help drive this strategic priority, which I understand is atypical in the market for the legal profession. One of those people is Fabienne, whom you'll be delighted to hear from, and I'll let her share some of the challenges that she has identified.

Agnes Uhereczky: thank you very much, Bendita, for this concise overview. I think you didn't shy away from giving it to us as it is. I appreciate your candour and, and also the courage to say how you see it. So, Fabienne, over to you where do you see some of these key challenges currently?

Fabienne Ruopp: Thank you. Diversity has many challenges. But it must be also clear that diversity and inclusion is not a walk in the park, so to say. It is a cultural change as Bendita mentioned because even to have diverse teams doesn't mean it is an easy run. So, diverse teams drive innovative solutions precisely because they can be challenging, and by bringing diverse perspectives to the table, for example, you get more ideas, but you also get more people pointing out holes in your idea. It is not always easy. So the debate that can become with differing perspectives pushes everyone to think and work harder. And this is one of the most challenging aspects, I think of working in a diverse environment. I found that on many occasions inviting someone into the conversation might mean that we are debating an issue maybe a bit longer. But it also means that we end up with a stronger solution. So all in all, you can say diversity has a lot of challenges, but a lot of opportunities. And, if people understand and are aware of how to benefit from diversity, we can turn the challenges into opportunities.

Agnes Uhereczky: That's great, Fabienne. I appreciate what you just said. I think it's much better if current and future d&I professionals, who are listening to this conversation, note that enhancing diversity is going to be uncomfortable in certain ways. It's going to be hard work, and it's going to require a culture change. So the better they are prepared for this, it's going to be better for everyone. Fabienne, you are sitting in Germany, working for Hogan Lovells while Bendita is based in the us. Therefore, I wanted to tackle this issue of a global company. Because we see that there are certain differences between the trends between Europe and the us. Fabienne, starting with you, where do you see some of the differences and where do you see perhaps some of the convergence that exists between on both sides of the Atlantic?

Fabienne Ruopp: I'm happy to do so. Differences in trends between Europe and the US. I think, from my European perspective, that there are not really huge differences between Europe and the US and I would also include the UK. I think it is a different part of the journey. Europe is, I would say, at the beginning of its D&I journey. Due to their history, the US and UK are a step ahead. So some of the D&I topics come across to Europe with some delay. But in the end, I think we have the same challenges as our colleagues in the US and UK. We all fight at the end for equity and inclusion and we all want to reduce prejudices. But of course, in Europe, we have a style challenge, for example, in gathering data, how to get to know our people due to our strong data protection law, and that makes things sometimes a little bit more challenging than maybe it is in the UK or the US. Also, Europe, as itself is very diverse, we have several jurisdictions and multiple languages. So this is also something which can be a bit challenging because the language topic is not to be underestimated. When English is spoken as a foreign language and more specifically, in a D&I context, there are many pitfalls. Even more so when native speakers are part of the conversation because language and conceptual questions can overlap. For example, why do most continental Europeans never address the word race? Or, what exactly do we mean when we say woman quota? Or, why does equal treatment appear to be a desirable concept in some places? So, these are just a few examples of where communication in Europe can be difficult or evenly disrupted. But I think as I said, in Europe, we have, in the end, the same challenges, maybe with a slightly different focus on some D&I topics or strengths. And, for example - and I'm sure that Bendita can give you more insight than that - the Black Lives Matter movement is not such a present movement in Europe. But of course, and this is the case, we have racism in our society and our structures. We have to work hard on this topic to change it. So, there are a lot of similarities, maybe with a slightly different focus. But in the end, Europe is on the same journey but at another level of maturity.

Agnes Uhereczky: How do you see this from you being the global head? So you have this overview between the different regions. How is this for you to navigate, maybe the differences or the similarities?

Bendita Cynthia Malakia: Being a global company, there are a lot of similarities, and probably Fabienne has enlisted a couple of them. I would note that at the root of all of our diversity and inclusion challenges, is a bias, whether it's explicit bias or implicit bias. That's something that we can't get away from. And so the extent to which we understand that there is something there that we ought to be paying attention to, that we ought to be trying to structure around, that we need to make the invisible visible for people. By doing that, and to do that, you need to set up an infrastructure and processes, and you can't just be reliant on kind of good-natured and well-meaning individuals, those things are the same. We would do well to try to learn from each other with respect to the strategies that we might have available to us.

Fabienne noticed a key difference with respect to data collection and identification. So, in the United States, specifically, we can capture, measure and disseminate more diversity and inclusion identification data than in many other jurisdictions. While GDPR is starting to become a thing here, and that may change, it's still the case that we're able to do things concerning individual identification that allows us to make strategic investments in people because we know who they are, they've told us and telling us at Hogan Lovells is completely voluntary. We don't require anyone to self-identify any identity other than gender. But many others identify other diversity identifications, including race and ethnicity, LGBTQ+, and to a slightly lesser extent, disability. So, as a result, we can go find people rather than potentially having people fall through the cracks. We can go find people to figure out what they're doing, we can analyze data based on different diversity of demographics and trends, and start to understand what is the trend so that we may be able to structure a policy or a process to mitigate the impact of that trend, or we can provide specific support for people. That doesn't mean that you can't do that in other parts of the world, but you have to be a little more creative about it. I think the opportunity there is increased inclusivity. So, in the US we might be able to pull a list and say, okay, we need to have a sponsorship program and we want to focus on our racial and ethnic minority talent or LGBTQ+ talents, somewhere else you might need to have kind of a general solicitation and then have the programming be focused on certain things, and then hopefully, capture people in that way.

I think that step of inclusivity lends itself to other areas. So, for instance, the allyship initiatives were born, especially with respect to the LGBTQ+ community, more in Europe than in the US, because you don't necessarily have as much latitude to be able to specifically identify people. So, you want to capture as many people as possible to help push forward your diversity and inclusion agenda. And I think that that's a huge positive because this is a problem that isn't created by underrepresented people. It's not created by diversity professionals and every single one of us has a specific obligation to resolve it.

With respect to the business, the biggest challenge that we have concerning data globally is that at a law firm of the size and stature of Hogan Lovells, we have a lot of global clients who have operations all around the globe. Some of them are based in the United States or the United Kingdom. And they're asking for data globally, that we cannot legally provide everywhere. Given that we're a service-oriented business, and putting clients at the centre of everything we do is a strategic priority of the firm, we want to be able to answer all the questions that our clients ask of us, but we sometimes just cannot, because we're bound by legal requirements. So, we need to have a lot of difficult conversations with certain clients to indicate that we can help you navigate getting the information that you need from us through another route. We are wholly committed to diversity and inclusion around the globe but we just cannot provide this particular data. And, even where we cannot legally provide it, culture is a really big thing, we often forget in the diversity and inclusion space that we are dealing with people's identities, especially in the workplace. We're dealing with the way people feel about themselves or dealing with their families, we're dealing with the ways that their trajectories are maybe shaped because of both societal trends and what's happening in the workplace. There are some places where it is just a very sensitive thing to talk about or ask about specific identities. Even if you can legally get the information, the culture may not necessarily be there, even for positive supportive initiatives.

I think another kind of key difference is related to a little bit of what the diversity focus is. Fabienne noted that the US and UK because of their history are maybe a little bit more ahead. In the US now, I think equity is more of a focus where your job is not just diversification, which is still a huge problem in both of those jurisdictions. It's also not just inclusion, which is the way that people's ideas are incorporated, and how they get to be involved in the way that they feel that they belong. It's also about making sure that we're making specific interventions to ensure that people who have been historically underrepresented, underserved or marginalized, can potentially get additional support than others to succeed. I think that my personal experience, I'm through this role in Europe more broadly, has been that equality is a big focus. There's a little bit more sensitivity about making those specific investments and that real inclusion, especially because of the data collection challenges in the game.

The last thing, which I hope we got to talk a little bit more about later, is that in the US, I think corporations are demanding diversity and inclusion. That's not to say that that's not happening around the globe. I know that Fabienne has led a great group of corporations that are doing wonderful work for diversity and inclusion in Europe but the levels of the demands are really specific in the US. And they're requiring, oftentimes either penalties, or they're offering benefits, to the extent that we are diversified. So not just “Wow, we think you're a great place and we're honoured to work with you” but we're willing to give you more money, or we're willing to dock money to the extent that you do not live up to these specific metrics that you've either set for yourself or that we've set for all of our outside counsel. I think that's a really important distinction because sometimes in a global law firm, where we have individuals all over the world who are servicing clients who've got multi-jurisdictional teams, it can be challenging when we have a potential US or us UK based company that wants a certain percentage of racial and ethnic minorities. And then we've got a large number of the team that sits in Europe, where we cannot identify specific individuals by their race and ethnicity. So, sometimes you can get disparate results in that case, even though we're trying to meet diversity and inclusion requirements, including having more people from the US and the UK potentially being staffed on those matters, because we've got the ability to do the data collection, even though there may be people who are sitting in the broader continental Europe that may be suitable and may be best suited for that particular work.

Agnes Uhereczky: Well, thank you so much Bendita, this has been so fascinating to listen to all of that you have outlined, and a lot of it I didn't even realize. So that was very interesting and helpful. There have been several public failings around diversity and inclusion just recently, and just this past week, when we're recording this - the whole case from basecamp was coming out. Fabienne, what do you think are the specific skills or competencies that diversity and inclusion managers professionals need to be equipped with to have a good positive impact and to be able to tackle the challenges?

Fabienne Ruopp: Well, I think, first of all, as a D&I professional, you should like people, and you should like all people. But I think it's important because Bendita said it before we are dealing with people. Therefore, you should like people. You should be curious and open-minded and able to listen to the people what they say and how they feel. Therefore you need to think of emotional intelligence. So that for sure helps to work successfully as a D&I manager. But what we also say is a sort of toolkit you need. Good communication skills, because they are key.

You must be confident to communicate with all levels of an organization. So you talk to the top management as well as, for example, to junior employees, and you always have to find the appropriate access to the people and in your role as a D&I professional.

I think it's very important that you can build a trustful relationship and that you can deepen connections to diverse people and communities. So, across all ethnicities, all genders, all sexual orientations, and all functionalities in a company, you are the bridge to a lot of functions because you are in contact with colleagues from communication, HR, the board of directors, and culture. You have a lot of interactions between the functions in your position as a D&I manager as well as you are a coach for people. So you consult people as well. All in all, I would say for this position, you need a passion for the topic; without it is not possible. Also, you need tenacity. Because cultural change - and that is what we would like to achieve - will not happen overnight. It is not a sprint, it is a marathon. So, therefore, I think you must be prepared.

Agnes Uhereczky: Would you also say, Fabienne, that d&I professionals need to be equipped to hold their grounds when it gets uncomfortable? Because I can imagine that these issues are very sensitive but can also maybe bring up painful memories for people, painful experiences, that it can get quite choppy in certain stages I would imagine.

Fabienne Ruopp: Absolutely. In an ideal world, a role like a D&I professional is maybe not necessary because we have diversity, equity, and inclusion. So you must be able to handle uncomfortable situations of course and to be strong and to fight for topics.

Agnes Uhereczky: I think the past year and a half has brought up several very uncomfortable issues. The pandemic, of course, being one, but definitely, the intensified black lives matter protests and their clash with the police, for example, in the us. But also other major events like the capital insurgents. All of these events have brought up quite intense emotions in people and also emotions and experiences of people in the workplace. Some companies choose to just tell employees that they shouldn't be discussing these events in the workplace because it's not their role to solve these deep political issues. Other companies have taken the stance. So let me turn to you, Bendita. What is your take on these most pressing, most urgent, but also most painful experiences that we are somehow reckoning with, and the role of organizations and the role of the d&I managers?

Bendita Cynthia Malakia: Thanks, Agnes. This is a very present and ongoing conversation, and it often has some generational nuance and expectation in the US in particular employees, especially those of Generation Z. Some millennials believe that the organization's responsibility is to deal with the issues present within the organization, even if societally rooted or caused. So in a recent article with Layla El-Wafi, of Standard Chartered Bank, we discuss navigating employee activism and the new norm. So it's the present time for this conversation that we're having and it's extremely complex. Our clients have widespread views. You know, we've got progressive clients, and we also have very conservative clients. Regardless of which position we take, we can potentially risk business by taking a particular position. If you follow the 2020 US election and the 2021 US insurrection, there are substantial fears around the country about diversity and inclusion specifically. In addition, in the US, we have the wrinkle of corporations generally being considered people from a political contribution and a political speech perspective, and with the millennial and Gen Z populations who are fully immersed in social media, and the organizations that you belong to are a part of your brand. So other people will judge you, by the organizations that you are a part of, and they'll decide whether or not you are who you say you are. So, there's a certain amount of authenticity. And those are the generations that express their values and all parts of their lives they don't just segment work from other things. As a result, I know for myself that I can't just work for any organization, even as a diversity and inclusion professional, because let's face it, there are a lot of diversity and inclusion professionals that are just signposts for a stated commitment but don't have any authority to act or to make a change or do any of the things that the organization would want them to do.

In addition to other criteria that are important to me, what our leaders choose to do on JDI matters deeply to me. I just like to highlight, though, that I do think it's a mark of privilege, in the global context to suggest that politics and diversity and inclusion are mutually exclusive. It's also a privilege to be able to belong in a country where you have the ability, without censure to think that you and your organization can challenge what's happening on a governmental level and not risk your safety. I just want to recognize those two privileges, which lands you in two different places.

It isn't that politics and diversity and inclusion are mutually exclusive. The history of the United States specifically negates that wholeheartedly our US Constitution, for instance, which guides our political life and our way of being is embedded with racism, in particular anti-black racism, and anti-indigenous racism as well. As a black bisexual woman, I feel deeply impacted by what's happening politically, in a way that matters for my safety and my family's safety, it could also have an impact on our family's viability. It was only recently that there was a law that protects LGBTQ+ people from being fired for being out in the workplace, here in the United States. I've been lucky in all aspects of my career to always have been out. But I know a lot of people don't have that financial privilege, they don't have that familial privilege. They don't have the ability to do that and to be their authentic self. So, I recognize that I've had some ability there.