Over the course of many decades, migrants to Australia have made major contributions to Australian culture and the community – in hospitals, through charity and in business. Despite this, it seems Australia has taken a step backwards with regard to ethnic diversity in the legal world among other workplaces.
Earlier this year, a Lawyers Weekly article even found that whilst female leadership on business boards had improved, ethnic diversity had, in fact, shrunk.
Keerthi Ravi, a Senior Associate at one of Australia’s largest law firms, says, “As a culturally diverse woman, I am always surprised at the lack of diversity in the legal sector: whether at law school, in a meeting room, on the office floor or in a courtroom.”
To her, the lack of diverse women in the workplace was clear.
This inspired her to create Diverse Women in Law (DWL), a Sydney-based non-profit organisation aiming to empower and support female lawyers and law students from diverse backgrounds.
AT A GLANCE
- Keerthi Ravi launched the social enterprise Diverse Women in Law in 2019
- It has 800 members, and 120 participants signed up for its inaugural mentoring program
- For diverse professionals, Keerthi advises, own your diversity; realise your potential, and push those boundaries
“Despite being from a minority background, I still consider myself as coming from privilege,” Keerthi told Indian Link.
“I’ve had the benefit of good mentors and role models at uni and in professional endeavours. It dawned on me that the profound impact it has had on my successes to date isn’t something that’s necessarily available to other diverse women.”
In the space of just one year, DWL has grown from Keerthi’s brainchild to over 800 members across Australia, featuring some of the most powerful and influential lawyers and judges in the country.
DWL’s inaugural mentoring program had 120 participants, implemented on a 2:1 (mentor to mentee ratio) basis.
Other activities have involved formal on-campus work with students, and more informal discussions between students and early career lawyers in its “Cuppa on the Couch” series.
With the pandemic, Diverse Women in Law (DWL) has steamed ahead online, facilitating virtual initiatives to provide access to mentors, assistance with job applications and advice on remote working and wellbeing.
Still, she acknowledges that there is more to be done as ethnic representation remains a tough area to crack.
“The lack of visibility and access to mentors that individuals from diverse backgrounds have to overcome is what weakens the pipeline of diverse talent,” she noted. “It results in many of these individuals leaving the profession. Individuals from minority backgrounds can’t be what they can’t see.”
How do we go about resolving that?
“First up, we need to change the dialogue” Keerthi says. “We need to positively advocate that people from ethnic backgrounds bring something unique and valuable to the table.”
Recent evidence suggests that diversity could even have economic benefits: organisations with diverse boards and leadership teams outperform their less diverse counterparts and show 19% more revenue than those that do not.
Mainstream stakeholders such as males and non-ethnic individuals also have a role to play in fostering diversity, Keerthi emphasises. “Everyone, irrespective of gender, race, or background, collectively plays a role in improving the representation of diverse women in the workplace. This could come in the form of less obvious support such as asking for their inputs in a meeting or acknowledging contributions in an email, or more overt gestures like asking to present to a client or supporting important causes to them.”
For ethnically diverse lawyers starting their careers, Keerthi advises a three-pronged strategy.
- Realise your potential: People from diverse backgrounds bring unique potential to the workplace. Being resilient, hardworking, well-rounded and proactive is in our DNA: these are essential ingredients to success at work.
- Own your diversity: We need to have the confidence to be proud of our ethnic roots and background (this is something I struggled with when I started my career). Sharing stories, experiences, difficulties and challenges helps to change the dialogue, unconscious biases and perceptions that may exist in the minds of our colleagues.
- Push boundaries: The legal industry is experiencing rapid change, with the lack of ethnic diversity now the subject of increasing debate. Whilst we still have a long way to go, there are strong calls for action from senior members of the Bar, judiciary and law firms. We need to capitalise on the goodwill and genuine concern being shown by our colleagues and push the boundaries – whether it be to push for that promotion, actively seek out mentors, ask insightful questions in interviews, strive for new challenges or opportunities in the workplace.