Back in 2018, four women associates at Freshfields sought to address a question that was coming up time and time again – ‘I am obviously very supportive of gender equality, but how can I help in practice?

With this in mind, the Every Day Gender Equality (EDGE) initiative was created. This asks colleagues to commit to ten everyday actions that they can take to improve our culture of equality and inclusion within the firm.

A ‘living’ commitment – not just words on a page

In order to make EDGE truly impactful, it soon became clear that we needed collective buy-in from our entire network and to support all aspects of diversity and inclusion. This led to a global consultation, where input and views were sought from many different parts of the firm – both through direct engagement with leadership in each of our offices and ‘on the ground’ focus group discussions. We wanted EDGE to reflect these diverse views, so following feedback from these sessions the initial draft of EDGE was revised.

The launch in November 2018 was marked with a firmwide event and a video in which partners discussed the importance of the initiative and actions they would take to ensure its successful implementation. Since its launch, 2,500 colleagues have signed up, demonstrating consensus on the need for greater action towards diverse representation.

‘Doable’ actions

EDGE itself is based on the idea that small practical changes can collectively make a big difference to our firm-wide culture. The actions enshrined within EDGE were chosen on the basis that they were straightforward, easy to understand and essentially ‘doable’.

For example, EDGE includes a commitment to be aware of inclusive behaviours and to act in a way which allows everyone to participate and be heard, without being interrupted. We achieve this by giving everyone the opportunity to speak in meetings, not talking over people and making sure that all voices can be heard (not just the loudest).

In addition to actions with an internal focus, EDGE promotes actions that extend its impact outside the firm. In 2019, for example, we rolled out a speed-networking programme for female barristers and for male and female lawyers from Freshfields. The events were designed to ensure that our lawyers develop connections with as broad a range of barristers as possible and to encourage chambers to present a more diverse list.

EDGE also includes a commitment that our colleagues can request that conferences (both internal and external) have a gender balanced panel and can refuse to attend where the panel of speakers lacks diverse voices. This empowers colleagues to raise issues in relation to gender equity with conference organisers, with the collective support of the firm, and gives them the confidence to generate new ideas that can also inspire measurable change.

Inspiring other employee networks

Achieving gender equity has been a key focus for many years and is part of our global diversity and inclusion (D&I) strategy. Employee networks play a vital part in this and, over recent years, we have seen our networks evolve from small social groups to larger structured groups with clear goals and priorities for the firm to focus on.

EDGE was a prime early example of this – a colleague-led initiative which has had a direct impact on the culture of the firm. Fast forward to today, we have over 15 employee networks across the firm. These networks help to attract and retain talent, and empower our people to bring their whole selves to work. We also encourage everyone to participate as allies to build empathy, demonstrate inclusive behaviours and learn more.

Our employee networks have grown markedly. Not only do they provide support for colleagues but are an invaluable source of feedback and insight, helping us to evolve our D&I and people strategy. Here are just a few examples:

  • Members of our global Black Affinity Network (BAN) shared insights to inform the design of our global Future Leaders Programme, a talent programme specifically designed for Black and ethnically diverse colleagues that was launched in 2021. They also recognise the importance of allies and formed a network of senior BAN allies, informally known as ‘BANbassadors’, to help ensure that conversations around race and ethnicity were included at every level of the business. This network meets frequently to share feedback and ideas, and most recently, joined a dedicated session at our fourth global BAN talent meet, which saw Black and Black-mixed race colleagues across the firm come together for two days of skills-based workshops and networking.
  • Our LGBTQ+ network, Halo, advised on the firm’s benefits offerings. In January last year, we were pleased to announce that we partnered with Carrot Fertility, the leading global fertility healthcare provider, to offer fully inclusive family-forming benefits, open to all, covering all routes to parenthood.
  • When the firm committed to making a donation to national and local organisations on the front lines of the fight for racial equality and social justice, members of our US Black Employee Resource Group (BERG) formed a research committee and provided recommendations as to where we should invest to ensure the greatest impact.
  • Our women’s networks have driven conversations around menstrual health and menopause. In Manchester, our Gender Equality Network (GEN) was responsible for period products being made available in all bathrooms (recognising trans and non-binary colleagues), and in London, the Women’s Network collaborated with the benefits team to roll out cover and a policy for those experiencing menopause.
  • Our faith networks have provided opportunities for colleagues and line managers to learn more, with our Muslim Network producing a comprehensive guide on Ramadan, and our Jewish Network publishing guidance on all Jewish festivals throughout the year.

What defines us? Agreeing our principles

The firm’s global leadership team recognises that employee voice and engagement is key to strengthening our inclusive culture. In addition to EDGE, our ‘Being Freshfields’ principles provide a framework to guide internal standards of behaviour and to be clear about our expectations of each other. These were developed for our people by our people, as part of a global conversation about what defines our culture. Feedback was collated from colleagues from across all practice groups and departments, and from every office across the world. Similarly, ‘Freshfields’ purpose and values’ are a set of principles which encourage a diverse and inclusive working environment and ensure there is a clear vision for the future of the firm.

All these principles have now been embedded into everyday practices across the firm, including in recruitment, performance reviews and reward. We have also included reference to behaviours as part of our annual senior leaders 360 feedback process. 

Much like the Bar, we recognise that what makes us unique is our people. It is our people, of all levels and across all offices, who are instrumental in driving our culture internally. We don’t see culture as an initiative that a team or network can drive – it is about all of us collectively working and learning together to create meaningful and lasting change.

So, what have we learned?

  • Initiatives aimed at improving D&I and culture need to involve everyone in the organisation. In order to drive behavioural change and create shared purpose, every individual in the organisation needs to have the opportunity to participate and be listened to – to ensure different voices, insights and experiences are taken into account. This, in our experience, is far more effective than ‘top-down’ initiatives.
  • Colleague-led networks provide an invaluable source of ‘on the ground’ information about lived experiences, feedback and ideas, and provide an important sounding board, including for those in leadership roles.
  • Seemingly modest changes can have a significant and lasting impact – provided that they are truly lived and embedded across all aspects of the organisation (including in recruitment, performance reviews and reward).
  • Collectively, we all help to shape our culture – not through words, but by living our principles day-to-day. Providing colleagues with a framework and shared language around inclusion creates space to reflect on our actions and impact and hold one another to account. This is an important part of delivering a culture that supports high performance across all roles and positions us well for sustainable success in the future.