The Profession

Let’s practise ‘belonging’ and stop talking about ‘inclusion’

By AdvocateDaily Staff

It’s time for the legal profession to stop focusing on “inclusion” and instead focus on “belonging,” says Toronto class-action lawyer Margaret Waddell.

Waddell, partner with Waddell Phillips Professional Corporation and the new TLA president, made the comments during an address at the Toronto Lawyers Association (TLA) end-of-term dinner.

She told the gathering that the legal profession’s fixation on inclusion is “the wrong dialogue” that has resulted in unhelpful and toxic polarization of sentiments.

Instead of focusing on inclusion, Waddell said the profession should foster a sense of belonging within its membership.

“I say inclusion is the wrong word, not because individuals do not have the inherent right to participate equally in the profession of their choice. Indisputably, they do. Rather, because ‘inclusion’ conveys the wrong message, particularly to individuals who experience racism, harassment or other forms of marginalization in the workplace,” said Waddell.

Inherent in the word inclusion are two unacceptable concepts, she said.

First, it is infused with the notion of control. Someone is choosing those who can or will be included in the enterprise under discussion, Waddell told the TLA gathering.

Demanding or compelling inclusion plays into that control dynamic — those on the outside are exhorting participation in the existing paradigm, and those making the demand are not the decision-makers, Waddell said, adding that talking about making the workplace more inclusive can also convey the same message.

“Accepting and validating control cannot be an acceptable foundation for the current dialogue about confronting and resolving the acknowledged systemic racism in the legal profession, particularly in the cases where the racism stems from unconscious biases,” she said.

Secondly, inclusion does not necessarily accommodate for differences of opinion, world view, culture, creeds, beliefs, and attitudes, Waddell said.

“Suffused in the term inclusion is the concept that those to be included will be incorporated into the existing machinery,” she said.

“It can be rigid, lacking the necessary flexibility and diversity of opinion and perspective that the legal profession likes to say it demonstrates, yet desperately requires.

To illustrate her point, Waddell used a familiar schoolyard scenario in which a playground supervisor insists that students include an awkward child” in their game of dodgeball.

The child is inevitably picked last, knows she is not really wanted on the team, and that the cool kids are being forced to tolerate her presence until they can put her out of the game as quickly as possible.

“Imagine how it felt to be that awkward child. ... It’s emotionally shattering,” she said. “Now take that feeling and consider what it is like to carry that weight with you every single day of your working career.

Waddell told TLA members that belonging is what the legal profession must strive for, adding that having a sense of belonging is a basic human need.

Belonging is to be accepted without reservation as a member or a part of the whole and means being yourself, she said.

“If equity-seeking lawyers have to filter out or downplay part of their personal essence to feel like they will be included, and if we continue to expect lawyers to conform to the dominant culture, then we are not creating a profession where everyone can feel that they belong, Waddell said.

“The result is self-evident — if our peers cannot be their authentic selves, and they feel psychologically unsafe, if they are expending mental resources just to try to fit in, and to avoid being judged negatively by their colleagues at work, then they will never realize their full potential.

“... If they do not feel that they are respected and valued, they will not be connected to their organization or workplace. That is not good for the professional, and it’s not good for the profession. Every lawyer belongs in the profession. It is through promoting and genuinely embracing diversity that we gain strength, increase credibility and provide better services to the public, she said.

Waddell pointed to a 2013 Deloitte study in which 61 per cent of respondents reported they were “covering” at work on at least one personal dimension so that they could better assimilate to their work environment. That number rose to 79 per cent if the worker is black and a shocking” 83 per cent if the individual is LGBTQ.

“How exhausting and creatively stifling. If the employee feels like they do not belong, the likelihood that they will leave their employment increases exponentially, she said.

“As a profession, we can do better if we proactively focus our efforts on belonging. Belonging will improve engagement and communication. It will enhance talent and, hopefully, result in less attrition among racialized licensees. Belonging liberates creativity and makes us stronger. It will silence the bullies. It will give all lawyers their voice to speak and be heard. Belonging leads to success for everyone,” Waddell said.

She used the example from the cult classic movie Napoleon Dynamite. In the film, the two “awkward kids on the playground” — Napoleon and Pedro — become leaders because they believe in their abilities and never doubt that they belong.

“As a profession, we should take heed of what author Melissa Camara Wilkins says on the topic of belonging. ‘You belong to yourself, you belong in this world, and you are a creator of belonging. You can give yourself space to show up, and you can create space for everyone else to show up, too.’

Waddell adds, “It is up to every one of us to create a space where everyone can show up, be their authentic self, and be seen, heard and respected. Each and every one of us belongs in this profession.

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