Diversity in the workforce: maximise your potential

The reasons for promoting diversity are pretty obvious: to contribute to a fairer society, improve the quality of staff by reaching untapped pools of talent and to increase consumer confidence in a workforce that reflects the clients that it provides services for. But what do we actually mean by it? The word is often thought of as being to do with ethnicity and gender. But since humans first emerged around two million years ago a huge number of differences have emerged amongst us. Some of these differences are relatively unproblematic such as eye colour and hairiness, while others cause us to consider carefully how we treat certain groups. Examples of the latter include education, culture, gender, language, socio-economic backgrounds, religion and sexuality, as well as ethnicity. A useful concept of diversity will therefore incorporate these differences.

Ethnicity is certainly one of the most important types of diversity, both because of how closely people identify themselves with their ethnic origin and because of the large disparities in areas such as education and employment between different ethnicities. However, things are moving in the right direction.

Gender equality may be the longest-standing issue under discussion here and women have made great strides towards career equality over the years. According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, although women earn 17 per cent less than men and their employment rate is 67 per cent versus 79 per cent for men, the gap is closing. Furthermore, when we compare younger students, the future looks particularly bright. 49 per cent of boys versus 59 per cent of girls in the UK gain five high grade GCSEs, and of the 56,000 students studying law at university, 62 per cent are women.

In the United Kingdom, 3.1 million people belong to a non-Christian religion. Religious diversity, closely linked to ethnic diversity, is especially important to individuals. Issues employers need to address range from dress restrictions to diet to religious days to Western customs such as alcohol drinking.

Socio-economic diversity is related to other types of diversity such as religion, ethnicity and education. But there is an important sense in which socio-economic diversity is unique. With all the other types of diversity there is no obvious way of ranking people. However, our economic background is particularly easy to rank - indeed, it is essential to work out how much tax we pay! The situation is not much different with social class, where measures such as the Acorn census profile are pretty mainstream. Socio-economics gives us a measure of social mobility, the extent to which people move out of the socio-economic groups they were born into.

Educational background can be connected to religion (faith schools), socio-economic group (fee-paying schools), region (grammar schools) and gender (single-sex schools). We will focus our attention here on the differences between fee-paying schools and state schools. There are currently lots of privately educated people working in our leading professions. The Sutton Trust recently reported that the proportion of privately educated journalists and lawyers is large and getting bigger: 54 per cent and 70 per cent respectively. Reasons for this are not hard to find: personal connections, confidence and tradition are the most obvious candidates, all of which are being addressed by some of the measures below. However, there is definitely not a lack of interest in law as a career from state-educated pupils. Law has been one of the most popular of the T10k (a consortium of firms and universities) sector presentations, second only to business, and the majority of students studying law at university were educated in the state sector.

Many other important types of diversity exist. Language, disability, culture, age, sexuality, and gender identity all go a long way to determining who we are as individuals and the list does not stop there.

Clearly, then, there is much to be done on a variety of diversity fronts. Thankfully, progress towards a more diverse workforce in law and similarly competitive careers is being driven from a number of sources.

To achieve a more diverse workforce in careers such as law, it is essential that the make-up of universities is at least as diverse. Most universities now have schemes in place to encourage applications from a wide range of backgrounds, following the Government's White Paper The Future of Higher Education (2003). For example, the University of Newcastle offers Newcastle University Bursaries and Newcastle Excellence Bursaries for students from lower income households.

Our own aim at T10k is to maximize potential by enabling bright students from all backgrounds to get a clearer idea of what the more competitive universities and employers are really looking for, equipping them with all the necessary skills to make a considered and informed university application. Over the past 12 months we have worked with 10 leading law firms - forming a T10k consortium - in putting on our 2006 events. The response from these firms has been overwhelming and reflects the sector's concerted efforts to combat all diversity issues. Interest from firms outside law has also been substantial with a further 18 firms and organisations becoming involved in the project in its first year.

Measures are also in place to increase diversity amongst barristers. The Equality and Diversity Code for the Bar fully explains the importance the Bar Council places on equality of opportunity: "Cultures and practices which may deter those of high ability from remaining within the profession or from achieving their full potential must be identified and, where possible, eliminated." Likewise, the Chair of the Commission for Racial Equality called for the profession as a whole to give paralegals (legal assistants) a chance to move up through the ranks.

So, there is more support than ever for a range of different groups. Apart from a few obvious pre-requisites such as intelligence, hard work, ambition and professionalism, universities and employers are genuinely interested in all kinds of people. However, the most effective movement towards a more diverse workforce will come from you; recognise the encouragement and opportunities out there and have a go!

Marc Zao-Sanders is a director of T10k. For more information visit www.T10k.org