I hear a lot about the business case for diversity. The fact is, we shouldn’t need one. What kind of person needs a business case to treat fellow human beings fairly?
Diversity is not just about changing the proportions of certain types within a community. It’s also about making everyone in that community – whether or not in a minority – feel welcome, comfortable and valued, allowing all to contribute to their full potential. It’s about recognising differences and then respecting, accommodating and embracing them. And it’s about being considerate.
Through leading the diversity-promoting initiative IP Inclusive, I know the IP professions to be full of decent, well-meaning, morally responsible people. So what goes wrong? Why do we still do things that discourage participants from minority groups, that erode our inclusivity and thus our diversity too? Why do we still accidentally serve a bacon sandwich to a Muslim or a steak to a Hindu; urge an alcoholic celebration on someone for whom it’s forbidden; try to fix up a single colleague with a member of the opposite sex; summon a parent to a late night meeting, a Jew to a Friday evening reception, or a wheelchair user to a last-minute central London conference?
Why do we still not really understand – much less allow for – how it feels to be the only woman in the boardroom, or the only black or Asian person at a seminar? Why do we forget that our well-meaning banter can hurt those who are not part of the “in” crowd? Can’t we foresee that not everyone will feel at ease with a five-course banquet and twenty pieces of cutlery?
It is, of course, thoughtlessness that lets us down. And this is not malicious thoughtlessness; it is the blithe naivety of those who take for granted a world geared almost entirely to the way they are, who have never had to worry about what makes their colleagues uncomfortable, because thus far their colleagues have been the same as them. Even when we try to be sensitive, too often we lack the knowledge and experience to succeed.
We are also susceptible to unconscious biases and assumptions, and to the stereotypes we know and love. We should not judge ourselves too harshly for this – the brain makes sense of the world by recognising familiar patterns – but we must be aware of it and take steps to overcome it. And in this I think the IP professional has particular handicaps.
As lawyers, we are trained to seek out, and follow, precedent. What better way to nurture acquired biases? We tend to be risk-averse, which again makes us less confident with the unfamiliar, less ready to embrace new approaches and perspectives. And we have learned to argue a case, and in so doing to resist conceding alternative views.
Then consider this: in the world of IP, boundaries are sovereign. Our role is to identify and assert them. Our day-to-day raison d’être is thus the antithesis of inclusivity.
Combine this with the fact that most of us in the IP professions enjoy almost embarrassing levels of privilege, and you have a community that often, in a “let them eat cake” kind of way, fails to see the issues facing the less privileged of its members. I suspect that behind our diversity-related faux pas lies a fundamental vanity: the assumption that the ultimate gift we can bestow on anyone is to welcome them as though they were one of us, that is, to slot them into our own frames of reference. Yet a Muslim may not want to be treated exactly the same as a Christian, nor a homosexual as a heterosexual, nor even a woman as an honorary man. Providing equal opportunities is more nuanced than dispensing identical treatment.
I believe inclusivity is key to improving diversity. But behind inclusivity is a recognition of the things, in ourselves, that undermine it, and a commitment to do better. We must think about other people – how we treat them, what we say to them, what we expect of them – and do everything we can to accommodate them. We must ditch our narcissistic assumptions and instead learn from others, with humility and open minds, about how their worlds differ from ours. In so doing, we can create a wider, more vibrant community in which those worlds meet, meld and ultimately, enrich one another.
IP Inclusive task force leader