What the Bar can learn from... trade unions on equality of opportunity

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Unions aren’t an obvious port of call for those at the Bar seeking inspiration for how to widen access and develop talent but we have a number of challenges in common, writes Ijeoma Omambala QC

In 2019 myself and a colleague, Nadia Motraghi were asked by ASLEF, the train drivers’ union, to write an independent report into levels of diversity among train drivers in the UK and to look specifically at measures that could be taken to increase the numbers of women, people under 35 years of age and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) drivers on the railways. As part of our work we looked at initiatives that had been devised by trade unions and employers to provide real equality of opportunity to underrepresented communities and to change the composition of the workforce. Our work identified a range of barriers to opportunities. It also revealed a number of innovative ideas and projects to tackle those barriers that have begun to make a difference.

Our report made several recommendations for actions which have been adopted by ASLEF and are being taken forward with train operating companies. This article explores some of the recommendations which might be transferable.

Common challenges

The rail unions are not an obvious port of call for those at the Bar seeking inspiration to make good the oft-stated desire to widen access and develop talent. However, the rail unions and the Bar share some common challenges:

  • ASLEF, the main train drivers’ union, can only recruit as members people who have been selected and trained to work as drivers by the train operating companies.
  • It does not control the pool for recruitment.
  • Drivers are a critical resource for the rail industry.
  • They are predominately white, middle-aged men.
  • Women and those from BAME communities are significantly underrepresented.
  • There is an urgent need to widen the pool for recruitment because of expansion of the sector.

Chambers and the judiciary:

  • Can only recruit those who have been called to the Bar or admitted into the legal professions.
  • They do not control the pool for recruitment.
  • Barristers are a critical resource for the legal profession which is facing up to its own recruitment and retention, crisis.
  • Training is expensive and of variable quality.
  • Women and those from BAME communities are significantly underrepresented.
  • There is an urgent need to widen the pool for recruitment.

Lack of knowledge

Our research found that a lack of knowledge about the range of roles available in the rail sector remained a barrier to widening the pool of applicants for jobs.

A lack of knowledge within underrepresented communities about the work of a barrister is also an issue. If you don’t know what a barrister does, how can you decide that you want to be one? Let alone how to become one?

Working together

First, ASLEF confronted the uncomfortable statistics surrounding their industry: in 2012 only 4.2% of train drivers were women and only 5% from BAME communities. Next, it decided to try and do something about those statistics. Finally, it challenged train and freight operating companies to work with them to ensure that train drivers are more representative of the communities they serve.

ASLEF and the train operating companies identified that this work needs to start early. They recognised the importance of working with schools and colleges to tackle discrimination and stereotypes related to protected characteristics like gender, race, religion and age that can affect career choices. Together they worked to raise the profile of the industry and the opportunities it has to offer.

In conjunction with charities and training providers, ASLEF and the train companies devised and ran short courses aimed at developing young people’s skills and awareness of the industry so that they were better prepared to take those first steps towards their chosen careers.

2019 saw the launch of the Train Drivers Academy, an organisation devised and funded by industry stakeholders which operates online and is intended to: provide standardised industry training resources, share best practice and promote innovative techniques to improve the recruitment and training of drivers. The idea is that pooling resources to standardise the training process will provide operators with quality assurance and economies of scale.

What might the Bar draw from this?

  • Working with others who can make a difference.
  • The need to start early.
  • The need to go into places where the people that we need to reach live and study and explain ourselves.
  • The need to provide support and training to prepare individuals for the challenges that joining our profession may bring.

The education faculties of the Inns of Court, chambers and legal charities do some of this work but there is so much more that could be done.

Data gathering: an evidence-based approach

The union and employers recognised that one of the fundamental requirements for the development of effective action programmes is the collection of relevant data. However, it is not enough just to gather data, it must also be analysed. Rigorous data analysis enables a clear understanding of the current situation, where particular problems arise and of what methods are effective in addressing the problems identified. Effective data gathering and data analysis should facilitate an evidence-based approach to finding solutions.

Recruitment

Union and employers are working hard to develop representative and inclusive recruitment and advertising materials which reflect the diversity of the world at large. Particular attention has been given to the language and images used in recruitment materials: images do matter. Real thought is given to the placing of adverts where underrepresented groups are likely to see them and read them. Intelligent use of social media platforms and campaigns run with diversity focused groups have all been used to try and widen the pool of applicants.

Imaginative recruitment campaigns involving open days, specific events for particular under represented groups and community engagement activities raise the profile of the industry and highlight the possibility of fulfilling careers. There is a growing use of peer-to-peer workshops and recruitment events that provide prospective recruits with the chance to speak to ‘someone like them’. They can make contact with people already in the job and hear positive statements about the level of reward, the opportunities for career progression, job satisfaction and job security available alongside the cautionary tales of challenges in the early years of work. Such events can be particularly effective in dispelling myths and making a role appear more accessible.

Some operators have adopted positive action initiatives to improve the diversity of their workforces. These have included talent development programmes that provide assistance with preparing application forms or practising interview techniques.

Ensuring that interview panels are trained in preventing conscious and unconscious bias and internal recruitment strategies such as anonymising application forms have worked to encourage recruitment from a more diverse pool.

These measures also tend to increase confidence in the process which again can lead to increased numbers of applications from under-represented groups.

Retention rates

The introduction of internal employee networks to mentor and support staff in their development has improved retention rates. In some companies this has meant appointing ‘champions’ for particular underrepresented groups. These are senior leaders who are visible symbols of an organisation’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. They are a visible presence at events and advocate and influence across the organisation.

The establishment of clear diversity and inclusion strategies and the effective communication of those strategies to all employees, have also proved effective mechanisms for shifting organisational cultures and promoting retention of employees from underrepresented groups. Workplace awareness training and the active promotion of inclusive workplaces are signs of a commitment to respecting and valuing all workers, including underrepresented groups, which can also aid retention.

Our research found that the limited availability of part-time work was a real barrier in particular to female participation in train driving. Where part-time work was available it centred around rush hour peaks and was unattractive. Working with train operating companies ASLEF has agreed flexible working arrangements and alternative shift arrangements while maintaining terms and conditions of employment and opportunities for career progression. These arrangements are available to all workers and have led to an increase in the recruitment and retention of women drivers. Current research suggests that all employees and particularly those under 35 value the opportunity to work less than full-time in order to support choices around work/life balance.

Of course, it is not enough to devise and implement these measures. It is also important to tell the industry, your target audiences and the wider world that you have done so. Reviewing progress on a regular cycle and making changes when the available evidence suggests that they are needed are also key.

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Ijeoma Omambala QC

Ijeoma Omambala QC is a barrister at Old Square chambers. Her expertise covers the whole range of protected characteristics. She has advised and represented claimants, respondents and trade unions in claims involving allegations direct, indirect discrimination, harassment and victimisation.