It's been a strange and unsettling few months to say the least. There's been ample opportunity to reflect on the 'new normal' and how we might make a sustainable shift from the 'old normal' towards a better normal.
The birth of this virus shines a light on the need for a better relationship with our planet. The death of George Floyd, and all too many others, highlights the need for better relationships across our races. And the double whammy of working and schooling from home has, in some families, brought the inequality of traditional gender roles into sharper focus. How do we improve these relationships?
Much as I love working from home, sometimes it's the little things I miss about being in the office. Chats at the kettle. And, funnily enough, the soap in our bathrooms. It’s not just that we've all been washing our hands more. I think about the logo I used to see on the soap dispenser every day in the office – it is in braille.
That's because our soap is made by a company which not only uses recycled packaging and locally sourced ingredients, but also creates life-changing job opportunities for people who are blind, disabled or otherwise disadvantaged.
We're a B Corporation, which means that we choose suppliers with ethical credentials. When we first mooted the idea of changing our suppliers a colleague asked me if I thought it was right to apply a preference like this. Was it fair to make a choice based not just on price and quality of the goods but on the way they are produced, and by whom?
I said, 'It depends on whether you think the world is a fair place and that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed.'
This is important. If the world you live in is fair and meritocratic then any attempt to change it smacks of bias and discrimination. If, however, you accept that the world is not a fair and meritocratic place then the logical thing to do is try and change it for the better. In fact by doing so, bias and discrimination is exactly what you’re acting against.
So we agreed that it did make sense to favour the ethical supplier whose employees are disabled or disadvantaged. We include ethical credentials in the list of criteria for our suppliers when we tender. And we will happily tell everyone that we do so.
Now imagine doing the same thing for gender equality and racial equality. We know that there is a stubbornly homogeneous status quo in our profession. What if we accept that this is in itself evidence that not everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed - what would we do then? Would we introduce targets, quotas even? Would we actively prefer underrepresented groups – women, black people, other ethnic minorities? If not, why not?
The Law Society is encouraging firms to sign the Women in Law Pledge which includes a commitment to making, and reporting on, targets for gender equality. Of course, you can only set targets if you understand where you’re at now. So this means actively recording and monitoring diversity data – who’s recruited, retained and promoted in your firm? Does this evidence reveal any trends? And if so, what can you do to address them?
Now is a once in a generation opportunity to 'build back better'. That starts with challenging our underlying assumptions about what is 'normal', and taking action to build a world that truly is fair and meritocratic.
Mindy Jhittay is a senior associate at Bates Wells