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Role models: why they're key to both diversity and inclusion, and business

Sarah Gregory is the inclusion and diversity partner at Baker McKenzie. In a regular column for our diversity project, she gives her thoughts on the fundamental value of role models.

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Sarah Gregory

INCLUSION AND DIVERSITY PARTNER, BAKER MCKENZIE

Role models are actually fundamental to diversity. If you think about how mentoring and sponsoring developed, both have roots in the idea of role models. Most people don't think about joining the legal profession unless they know someone who is in it, unless they see a role model – even if that’s a fictional character like Atticus Finch.

The key thing about role models is that they make a profession real as they speak to our shared humanity. They are also much more effective when they are attainable. This can be particularly significant for women when balancing working and being mothers in regards to the myths of ‘having it all’ and being a ‘superwoman’. You can see how having a role model who is successful helps get people into the profession but also keeps them in and helps them progress. Role models are definitely key at ALL levels of your career.

I can think of a number of examples, both in Baker McKenzie and beyond, of people who would not have joined their profession without a role model. When students come into our firm at 16 as part of our focus on social mobility, the most effective thing is seeing someone who is like them, who came from the same background and who is a successful lawyer; it makes people think "if they can do it, then I can do it". I have spoken with black female undergraduates who during their vacation scheme have actively sought to connect with female black lawyers or partners. They needed reassurance that they could "make it" in this environment. Without role models people question whether they can succeed and as a result may not even try. It’s about feeling that you can fit in, whatever your identity.

Personally, I have had two types of role models. Some are the ones who are like me, either they are working mothers in the same situation or people from the same state school background. My other role model is a senior figure who is taking a real leadership role in encouraging diversity and embracing inclusion, for example a GC who has a KPI around diversity and is cascading this down through direct reports, as well as collaborating on the topic with external law firms . So there are role models who have been on the particular path you're walking or there are those who aren’t but are somehow leading in this area.

I think a really significant factor with either type of role model is being able to help people stand in someone else’s shoes and to understand the challenges that others might face. And the way to do that is to speak directly and truthfully about your own experience or what you have seen.

The assumption is often that everyone who is from a different background should be a role model but we should be expecting it of everyone. Some role models are obviously 'diverse' and others are not, but it's the way they approach things or the way they call things out that can be most powerful.

As a working mother, having female role models is important but if you see a man juggling work and child care responsibilities, it can be very powerful in a different way. I hear millennial men say that they too really need those role models. Many feel it can be harder for a man to ask for shared parental leave or to work flexibly, so going forwards male role models who are working parents and don’t hide this are going to have a significant role in changing a lot of ingrained assumptions around roles and work. If we can get to a level playing field where career breaks are seen along with different working patterns as the norm, regardless of gender, that’s going to be a big breakthrough in regards to work and diversity.

So, everyone should be a role model. Leaders telling a story relating to who they are and where they come from can be so powerful and can inspire those around them. We need role models at every level of organisations who can tell stories to all levels. That will really begin to develop an inclusive culture; in a junior position, you need to see you can get to the next level by being yourself but it is also good to see you can get to the top if you want to and that you can get there by being authentic.

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