Diversity and Inclusion: Technology and Data Help Firms Move Beyond Performative Allyship and Tackle Unconscious Bias

“You just need more experience in the construction industry. It’ll help you build more credibility with our clients,” quipped Richard to Karin, failing to recognize her repeated attempts to seek out such opportunities only to have managers overlook her in favor of her counterparts. It felt all too familiar to her: An offhand comment that reflected a culture of how things were actually said and done, far removed from the marketing campaigns that promoted the firm’s diversity and inclusion (D&I) efforts.

Although this may be a fictitious scene, it reflects the realities of individuals from underrepresented communities that are typically the focus of D&I programs — any of whom feel they don’t quite fit in at their workplace.

In order to succeed in today’s competitive marketplace, firms must move beyond performative allyship. When it comes to fostering greater diversity and inclusion, technology and connected data, when properly harnessed, can provide powerful tools that enable greater inclusivity in firms.

We’re Off to a Strong Start, But Need to Keep Moving

We are living in a time of major societal upheaval; headline news spotlights the global struggle against discrimination. The professional services industry is a microcosm of the world at large: Within the U.K., the Solicitors Regulation Authority has highlighted the continued underrepresentation of women, people of color, and individuals with disabilities within law firms when compared to the wider population.

Media accounts detail how a few firms have responded, expanding their initiatives that play a part in driving greater diversity and inclusion. Travers Smith — a leading corporate law firm based in London — implemented a flexible working policy that successfully enabled employees such as working parents to manage their schedules to suit their needs. Allen & Overy, a Magic Circle firm with specialized expertise in banking and finance, pioneered the publishing of metrics around the firm’s “stay gap” — that is, how long lawyers who are Black, Asian, or members of any other underrepresented community remain at the firm, as compared to their white counterparts — while also rolling out diversity targets based on ethnicity.

The importance of D&I as a differentiator has been repeatedly proven by multiple studies — including two published by McKinsey and the Solicitors Regulation Authority. However, many scholars question the extent to which existing D&I initiatives are virtue-signaling in nature and ineffective in practice. This is arguably exacerbated by the increased focus on aggregate analytics (e.g. total gender split) that can minimize the appearance of firmwide issues.

Many Firms Focus on Diversity but Neglect Inclusion

Whereas diversity helps a firm by introducing the perspectives of individuals with different points of view, inclusionensures those views aren’t held in silos. One popular quote on the subject comes from Verna Myers, Vice President of Inclusion Strategy at Netflix: “Diversity is being invited to the party, and inclusion is actually being asked to dance.”

In contrast to the stories of progress being made in some firms, we still hear deeply personal stories of the obstacles professionals across the industry still face. A lack of general support and mentorship from senior leaders, resistance to prioritizing an inclusive workplace culture, and “breakroom politics” all contribute to a noninclusive work environment that prevents even the most diverse workforce from reaching its full potential.

Unconscious Bias Leads to a Poor Employee Experience

One of the biggest drivers of diversity without inclusion is unconscious bias: social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness.

It’s important to note that such biases are not limited to gender or ethnicity; they can include learned behaviors like affinity bias, the tendency to connect with people who share similar interests and experiences. Similarly, the “horns effect” is the tendency to view another person negatively based on a trait which is averse to one’s preferences, which could be something as innocuous as their accent. The aggregation of these unfair biases, which do not find basis in intellectual rigor or survive evidence-based challenge, often result in a diminished employee experience for those on the receiving end.

As firms look to increase inclusion, we recommend that they query the ways that unconscious bias comes into play:

  • Who has relationships with whom?
  • How quickly do people’s careers progress?
  • Who gets certain opportunities, and who does not?
  • How do people feel included, and are they able to be their authentic selves?

Once a firm begins asking these questions, it’s tempting to assume that the problem’s soon solved. But, in the real world, inclusion tracking has historically proven difficult due to limited data gathering as well as response bias — the tendency of people to respond to questions with answers they deem socially correct. So how can a firms start to measure what people actually do, and not just what they say they do?

Connected Data and Technology Helps Drive Inclusion

Although leaders are starting to acknowledge the personal stories of obstacles faced by individuals from underrepresented groups, it’s critical that we recognize the vital role that evidence and data plays in enhancing the conversation. To that end, we believe the ways in which, when it comes to diversity and inclusion, technology can play a significant role:

  1. Identifying the strength of relationships between people within the firm, based on the frequency and quality of their interactions (which are increasingly computer based).
  2. Surfacing the types and quantities of opportunities and work allocated to people, based on the nature of activity and time narratives captured.
  3. Enabling authenticity in the workplace by allowing people to note their pronouns or share the pronunciations of their names.
  4. Tracking the effectiveness of existing D&I initiatives, such as by recording the frequency by which mentors and mentees actually engage in a program designed to build meaningful relationships.

Firms can use the resulting data to create insightful measures of how they can better support diversity and inclusion. Data also affords firms the agility to make active adaptations on a more frequent basis. Using data to recalibrate D&I initiatives midstream is analogous to looking at the speedometer during the journey if you want to get more quickly from Point A to Point B rather than simply noting the elapsed time at the end of the trip.

Having spoken to many friends and colleagues about their intersectional experiences, we wanted to bring to life how firms built upon a connected technology platform can lessen people’s experiences of marginalization.

Despite my efforts to broaden my experience, partners always seem to revert to working with the same people.

How technology can help:

  • Analyzing communication frequency on software applications affords visibility into who engages with whom to create transparency on the firm’s networks and inclusiveness.
  • Taking this one step further, experience management solutions can surface who is included on client pitches and proposals to determine if all people are being afforded the same opportunities.

I have a lot to offer, but I’m not being given the opportunity. I feel like I’m always being asked to do menial tasks.

How technology can help:

  • By running natural language processing (NLP) on anonymized email data sets, firms can use statistical analysis to uncover potential biases. For example, software can track the phrase “book a meeting room” and compare its use across two groups.

Although I know people inadvertently mispronounce my name, it’s frustrating always having to correct them.

How technology can help:

  • Name pronunciation functionality and the ability to show pronouns within talent-management solutions can help people better prepare for meetings with other employees and support greater inclusion.

Firms Can Unlock the Potential of a Diverse and Inclusive Workforce

Diversity and inclusion aren’t just about meeting quotas; they are about enabling equal opportunity while sustaining expectations of excellence, intellectual rigor, and robust challenge. The professional services industry has historically struggled to tackle its diversity and inclusion deficit, but we are seeing signs that firms are starting to break the mold.

In the realm of diversity and inclusion, technology and a connected platform can be used for good, surfacing insights on areas for improvement and helping nurture authenticity — inclusion-building tools that are not only exciting but essential. As a firm’s competitors make strides to support diverse workforces with true inclusion, its loss of talent (either people who leave or those who never apply) could well prove disastrous in the future.

Learn more about how Intapp Strategic Consulting helps professionals and senior business leaders at preeminent firms.

For more details on putting the power of a connected platform to work for your firm, please get in touch.