An image of Jane Ayaduray, Director of Diversity & Inclusion at White & Case.

The Big Interview with Jane Ayaduray

Jane Ayaduray is Director of Global Diversity & Inclusion at White & Case, a global, innovative law firm.

For HR Heads’ latest Big Interview, Jane spoke with Jen Gaster about D&I within White & Case and what challenges professionals within the Diversity space are currently facing.

Jane, you are the Global Director of Diversity and Inclusion with White & Case LLP, one of the larger global law firms, and I was keen to get your thoughts around that specialist, niche topic within the human resources field.

Can I start by asking what diversity and inclusion means to you?

Thanks Jen. And I think it’s a great question. For me, a lot of it comes down to fairness.

At the heart of D&I, it’s about really making things fair for everyone. It’s not about giving something special to one group or taking something away from another one, it’s about how do we really create an environment where everybody can succeed.

One of the things I love about working in D&I is the opportunity to bring that thinking to a wider community.

The work that we do in D&I as corporates has a flow on effect to our communities,. And I think that is one of the great pleasures of it.

I love the fact you link work to community there because we spend so much of our waking hours in that space, it’s really hard to distinguish it from life and society, and if one doesn’t permeate the other, then we’re in trouble.

You work in an international law firm, and people will have their own preconceptions of what that’s like. So, how do you think about diversity, inclusion, specifically at White & Case?

For us, it’s been an evolution.

Where we started, is probably a very common place for organisations to start – a single person doing a very specific piece of work, and we’ve evolved to asking “how do we really embed D&I across all of what we do?”

One of the things we’ve learned through our work is the importance of systemising some of the things we would love to happen naturally, but we recognise that to be fair and consistent, we need to put checks and balances in place.

People rarely plan to make an unfair or biased decision, and data and systems can help support us in doing better.

I can feel like I’m being incredibly fair but it’s only when we then take a step back and look at that, at a global level, we could really start to see that actually it doesn’t consistently play out in the way that we want it to.

We’re very focused on making everybody feel that they are part of the D&I conversation we’re having, and it’s all of our responsibilities.

It’s not just the responsibility of somebody who is from an underrepresented group or a historically marginalised group, or someone who works in the D&I team.

It is the responsibility of everybody in the firm, from the top leadership, down to somebody who’s new in their career or to the organisation.

I think things have evolved over time. But what do you think are the biggest challenges that perhaps D&I professionals currently face in today’s environment?

The US can provide us with some very clear examples of how the external environment can impact the work we do.

The Supreme Court decision around affirmative action for example. That’s based on university admissions, but there are flow-on effects from that.

So, if university admissions start to bring in a different profile of students, then that impacts the pipeline for everybody who’s recruiting from universities.

The pandemic was a huge learning opportunity for organisations around things like flexible working. A lot of organisations were very committed to being in the office full time, and then we were in a situation where people either worked remotely or the work wouldn’t get done.

Some industries suffered from that quite significantly, like hospitality. Other industries such as professional services were able to respond differently, and that brought up a whole host of different issues and challenges on the D&I front.

They were able to embrace it, weren’t they?

Members of the Black community, for example, said that working remotely helped them feel more protected from the microaggressions that they were commonly experiencing in their workplaces.
And that’s something which I’m really thoughtful about because as we are looking to bring more and more people back into the workplace, it’s important that we put in place mechanisms to address the negative experiences that people were having, but that weren’t necessarily being surfaced.

And how do you make it different? We can learn from it. But how? How do you then embed that?

Exactly. And of course, during the pandemic, we also had the horrific murder of George Floyd and the flow on effect of that.

It lifted awareness of the opportunities organisations have to help create fairer systems and structures internally, and the impact they could have externally through doing that.

That has shaped the environment for D&I practitioners substantially. D&I was very much at the forefront of the conversation, whether it was D&I practitioners and the work that we were doing or just the need for greater equality and the need for systems that have supported people in a way that was meaningful for them.

I don’t think pre-COVID, I’d ever had a conversation with the CEO or an MD or a Managing Partner around that specific topic.

It was always the curation of human resources as a function, and what it’s allowed us to do is bring that into the general leadership conversation. And you’re right, you might be the specialist in the organisation on it, but it’s not singularly your responsibility.

It’s how you make that permeate through the entire leadership down, but equally from the grassroots up and I think that is the win if there is anything to be taken from some of the awful situations we faced.

You mentioned George Floyd, and I’m really hopeful that there will never be an instance like that in our lives again.

But do you see there being a major trend that we’re anticipating over the next three to five years, that will really impact how we look at ED&I? We talked about D&I there, but equity, equality it’s all wrapped up and we’re talking more and more about belonging perhaps as well.

Intersectionality is certainly one that we are becoming more sensitive to.

Data plays a really important role – having a broader view of individuals so we can become better informed and better educated around the different experiences people have.

The broad brushstrokes that we’ve historically taken around things like gender, race, disability, LGBTQ+ and other underrepresented groups will become much more nuanced which will help us to better understand the different experiences of different groups in the workplace and the different experiences that they may be having.

Linked to that, AI is really interesting. Historically it had a bad rap in the D&I space, because it often perpetuates bias as it “learns” based on historic data, which isn’t ideal.

I was going to say, and it’s the human influence, isn’t it?

Exactly. And that’s not what we want. We want to do something differently, but we’re seeing AI taking on a role where it has the capacity to evolve and through that, be able to deal with large amounts of information and help mine the nuance and detail of big data.

That’s quite difficult sometimes for people to do, whether that’s their own lens or bias or perspective that they’re bringing, or sometimes just the volume of information to plough through. I think AI is potentially a tool that really helps navigate that.

I logged on to Chat GPT for the first time recently, and it made me think about possibilities to increase accessibility.

If someone is looking for suggestions or recommendations for their own content, AI could potentially support people who have been excluded from opportunities previously – improving their cover letter, for example, where biases around grammar or spelling might have been a barrier in the past.

I think in the absence of us being able to de-bias everything, it’s an interesting way of thinking about how it could level the playing field for someone.

We’re seeing it in recruitment. We see applications and we see CVs and they always used to be a bit of a stigma. Did you write this, or have you given it to someone else to produce? But actually, because those tools are available to use in the workplace, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be used in an application.

I think you could write a piece for work and run it through Chat GPT, and it would produce it. And there’s no reason not to use that.

It’ll be really interesting to see how that evolves, and is regulated.

There’s been an increase in legislation around the use of AI in hiring in the US recently which I think acknowledges the impact that technology can and will have.

And staying with regulators, globally we’re seeing greater interest in D&I reporting from both governments and regulatory bodies, which can be a powerful driver for private sector organisations to increase their D&I focus.

Absolutely. And you’re in a leadership role. So aside from the D&I specialisation, what were the early influences for you that make you the leader you are today?

One of the things I’ve been hugely lucky with in my career is to work with incredible teams and when I think back to some of my early leadership experiences, it was those teams who really showed me the way of being a leader.

They were generous enough and gracious enough to give me feedback, to show me how I could support them better to do more for them.

I also had a manager who was very much focused on strengths, and that was really eye-opening, and powerful “whatever I bring to the table is enough because I bring it to the table”.

It’s something which, while I wouldn’t say I consciously do it in my day-to-day workings, does come through and because of that role modelling from her, I’m in a position to do it myself.

And you learn from what you see, don’t you? It’s an easy option. And we referred earlier to data and we’re having lots of conversations across the HR space, but particularly in the ED&I world of how data plays a role in shaping policy and thought process innovations.

Can you share any thinking that around data that you use there?

I suppose I have two contradictory statements.

The first is: stories are data with heart. I heard that quote and absolutely adore it because one of the things we sometimes run the risk of, is the belief that if it’s not in a spreadsheet, if there are not 300 people saying the same thing, then it doesn’t count.

Particularly as we’re talking about something like D&I, which is so grounded in individuals’ experiences, genuinely understanding where people come from, and individual experiences is hugely important and is data in and of itself.

The second is: the risk of the single story is…it’s a single story. Where I’ve sometimes seen things go awry is when someone, particularly somebody in senior leadership, hears about an individual’s experience.

If they don’t have additional context or data, they can look to build solutions or galvanise the organisation around that one piece of information, without having a broader view. It’s not to say that the story isn’t valid or important, but data helps determine whether this is one unique experience.

We really do need to balance hard data with lived experience. People are not numbers on a spreadsheet and if we can recognise them both, that can help us make progress.

I’m a huge champion of data, particularly because D&I can become a very impassioned space and we often have people working in D&I who are very passionate about the topic.

Data is hugely grounding in that regard because it can help people see a big-picture view of the organisation’s needs, separate from our own interests and drivers, and help bring focus and pragmatism to the space.

My very last question to you, if I may, is you’re in that leadership role and as part of your job, it’s about bringing on tomorrow’s talent and the next generation.

So, if we’re talking about the next generation specifically of D&I leaders, what do they need to bring to the table and what advice would you give them as they evolve their careers?

On the personal front resilience is really important.
We sit at the forefront of some quite challenging situations. We do what we do because we believe in a better future and we believe that in a small way, we can impact and help create that. So definitely resilience.

It’s also important to be commercially astute – as I said, D&I is often a really impassioned space.

Bringing the real view around commerciality can help, partly because it helps us engage with and speak to business stakeholders who may not feel that same degree of passion that we do, but also because D&I actually is about the business.

This isn’t just a nice thing to do because we’re good people. It drives the sustainability of our organisations. The wider community is looking to companies to be good corporate citizens, to be players in the community, and to have a positive influence.

Understanding those dynamics opens up lots of opportunities, like how do we leverage D&I for business development, or for building a brand outside of our core markets.

I’m lucky enough to work in a global role, so also try to have an understanding of different cultural norms – something might not be illegal, but it doesn’t make it comfortable or easy. Being able to really look at and unpack some of those things is helpful.

Jane, your insight has been absolutely fabulous. I really want to thank you for taking the time to talk to us today. I’m sure our audience will love to hear your thoughts and probably reach out to you on LinkedIn for further conversations. But Jane, I really do appreciate your time. Thank you so much.