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Diversity Matters LGBTQ+: An interview with Emma Niit

Earlier this year, we held A Diversity Matters event that focused on the importance of LGBTQ+ inclusivity in the workplace. Today we are catching up with one of the speakers from that event, contract lawyer Emma Niit. She tells us why LGBTQ+ representation is so important and how it will improve the legal sector.

I completed my education in Canada, where, like America, law is usually a second degree. So, in addition to my J.D. in law, I also have a B.A.Sc. in civil engineering. Like many, I was unsure what I wanted to do with my life after completing my engineering degree, so I actually started in an engineering master’s programme before dropping out to study law. Yes, I’m a grad school dropout.

I was really good at maths and sciences and always thought of reading as more of a pleasure activity. When I finished high school, it seemed logical to move directly into a field like engineering, with its promise of jobs aplenty. The problem is that I really only enjoyed the maths and sciences; the practice of engineering was quite different to what I imagined. So, on a whim, I took the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), did reasonably well and applied to law school. Now I literally read for a living.

I am currently a self-employed contract lawyer. I’ve been practicing capital markets since 2009 (after I completed a clerkship), so I have built up a decent resume of experience. At the moment, I’m advising a company that is in the process of listing its shares on the New York Stock Exchange (it’s public at this point, don’t worry). It’s an exciting opportunity to put a lot of the theoretical knowledge I’ve obtained through my years of law firm experience into practice at a company that is actually listing. A big part of what I’m doing is advising on the law but I’m also involved in building out some of the other functions within the business to ensure continued compliance with the applicable laws and regulations.

I think we’re at a critical juncture for LGBTQ+ rights in the UK, and in many ways, I’m frightened about what the future holds. Coming from Canada, which I know has its own share of problems, I worry a lot about the fact that in the UK, our hard-fought rights could be legislatively dismantled, and relatively easily at that. We’ve seen a rising wave of intolerance for LGBTQ+ people in many countries around the world and I feel that it has taken hold here. We also have our own unique approach to transphobia in the UK, which we’re now exporting to other countries. All of this is a long-winded way of saying that I think it’s important we all band together, speak out against all forms of intolerance, and recognise that we are all allies for someone else.

Representation wise, I think there are two buckets to consider. The first is that LGBTQ+ representation is important for LGBTQ+ people because it means that we are more likely to be part of the decision-making process for those decisions that affect our lives. If we are not part of that process, there is a serious risk that our rights will be eroded as intolerance spreads. The second is that LGBTQ+ representation fosters greater diversity of thought and can help create an environment where diversity is increasingly valued. I think that more and more businesses realise that they cannot rely on a single archetype for decision-makers. Diverse individuals (and I mean the term broadly) bring different perspectives, skills and resilience, which are invaluable in any decision-making process.

Increasing LGBTQ+ representation within the law will make the profession more representative of the public it serves. I think that’s really the most important point but it is also relevant to note that more and more studies support the conclusion that diverse teams make better decisions. Diverse businesses are also more adaptable to challenging times and more profitable in the long run. This is highly relevant now, especially during this ongoing pandemic and looming recession.

To quote Bradley M Gayton, senior vice president and global general counsel for the Coca-Cola Company: “We have a crisis on our hands and we need to commit ourselves to specific actions that will accelerate the diversity of the legal profession. Our profession needs to be representative of the population it serves. All of us in leadership positions need to be the drivers of that change - and we will be better for it.”

To be honest, becoming a public advocate for diversity happened organically. First, I was invited to speak on a panel for LGBTQ+ women, which led to invitations to speak on other panels and workshops. I’ve also authored a few blog posts and articles. I think it’s important for all of us, including our allies, to speak up and amplify diverse voices.

There are lots of things that can be done to show support for the LGBTQ+ community, but one of the easiest is to attend and take part in LGBTQ+ events. It’s more challenging now with the ongoing global pandemic, but there are still a lot of important online events happening and conversations being had.

There’s never been a better time to learn about LGBTQ+ lives and experiences. Charities such as Mermaids and Gendered Intelligence produce a tremendous wealth of information that LGBTQ+ people and their allies can read about to understand some of the key issues that are being fought right now. There are also some excellent content creators on YouTube and elsewhere that produce topical, informative and entertaining analysis. Finally, Michael Cashman, Christine Burns and others have written or edited excellent books discussing how we got here and where the big challenges remain.

To start discussions about LGBTQ+ support in the workplace, as allies, it could be as simple as speaking to your manager or the HR manager for your team. You could ask about your firm’s diversity and inclusion policies (which may start the conversation if there aren’t any) or if there’s an LGBTQ+ group you can join as an ally. Most LGBTQ+ groups welcome allies, so this is a really good place to start. It’s becoming more and more common for firms to host diversity events, so maybe that’s something you could suggest if it’s something you’d like to learn more about.

If you’re LGBTQ+, it’s a bit harder because you have skin in the game. I think a good place to start in this case is to see if your firm has an LGBTQ+ group and, if not, consider starting one. Unless you work at a very small firm, you’re unlikely to be the only LGBTQ+ person working there, so an LGBTQ+ group could provide a lot of help and support.

I like to think of this generation as “diversity native”—much like how this generation of students is unlikely to recall a time before the internet; I suspect many people in this generation grew up with access to LGBTQ+ content (even the problematic stuff). That doesn’t mean that everyone is more tolerant and accepting, but I think, on average, there’s greater comfort with diversity. I hope that this generation brings greater acceptance and promotes greater equality in the workplace as they progress and attain senior positions. Ipsos MORI, in a recent article entitled “Transgender rights and a generational divide”, confirmed what many LGBTQ+ know; there is a generational shift underway (at least in the context of transgender rights) and “younger people are more likely to support transgender rights than older people.” I think the tide is turning on LGBTQ+ rights generally, but we’re still some way from complete acceptance.

 

Couldn’t make the event? Watch the talks on our ULaw YouTube channel.

Our next event in the series, Diversity Matters: Social Mobility is on 22 July 2021. For further information and to register your attendance for this free-of-charge event, please keep an eye on your student email.