I experienced a homophobic hate crime on my way to work

Browne Jacobson's Grace Woolford explains how a shocking experience motivated her to take part in her firm’s Courageous Conversations diversity and inclusion programme

Grace Woolford Image courtesy of Browne Jacobson

Browne Jacobson’s ‘Courageous Conversations’ initiative was launched last year to enable people from all parts of the firm to share personal stories around diversity and inclusion (D&I) issues and learn from each other’s experiences. The idea was brought to the firm by our D&I advisor Maria Waterfield and we arrange them to coincide with a wider D&I campaign, which works out at around one every two months. 

Each conversation focuses on a different theme and we have had up to 150 people take part. Our chosen themes incorporate issues spanning our D&I networks such as gender bias, ableism, homophobia and transphobia, anti-racism and social mobility.

The conversations, which are held online, are carefully structured in advance to make sure everyone taking part feels safe and included, including the audience. Each begins with housekeeping and speaker introductions led by the facilitator, followed by a presentation on the particular topic and then a moderated discussion. The format of the discussion can vary based on the topic and what the speakers agree in advance – they might focus on four questions and each respond or take turns to share their personal experiences. 

Read the list of more than 300 nominees for the Global Legal Post's inaugural Women and Diversity in Law Awards. The deadline for entries is Friday 11 November

Inclusion is at the forefront and from each session we have learned more about how to improve in this respect. Conscious effort is made to include visual descriptions of speakers, instructions for adding captions on Microsoft Teams and confirmation of the speakers’ pronouns. We have learned that inclusion is an ongoing ambition, rather than a tick-box exercise; you never know who you might be excluding until you consider an alternative perspective, so we are committed to continue improving along our learning journey.

Listening to real stories can be an uncomfortable experience, but one which can help everyone build more understanding and become better allies for marginalised groups, as well as gaining powerful insights about themselves that can lead to personal growth. Our very first Conversation focused on covering, and how psychological safety is important for people to be able to bring their full selves to work.

This was timely and something I was very proud to be a part of, as preparations for the session started shortly after I experienced a homophobic hate crime on public transport on my way to work. That experience is one that hugely motivates me; I am not a visibly queer person, so to be targeted in this way was a shock and opened my eyes to the realities many LGBTQIA+ people face. 

It takes bravery to be vulnerable, but doing so can result in cultural change that encourages others to take pride in their identities

Many marginalised people are not able to cover, and it was interesting to explore how doing so can be an act of self-protection. We call these sessions Courageous Conversations for a reason – it takes bravery to be vulnerable, but doing so can result in cultural change that encourages others to take pride in their identities, taking meaningful steps forward tackling society’s biggest issues.

For me, it allowed me to channel my anger into something positive, helping others to have difficult conversations about challenges in their own lives, leading to real changes within the firm. For example, the conversation during Disability History Month 2020 resulted in further discussions around accessibility in our office spaces. 

This prompted physical changes to the workplace that have made a meaningful, quantifiable change, such as the installation of a height-adjustable sink, and the removal of heavy glass doors. The flush mechanism on our toilets has been changed, for easier use by members of staff with disabilities and long-term conditions; this in particular was an issue we might never have considered had the platform for colleagues to share their stories not been available.

Empowering colleagues at all levels of the firm to speak up is at the heart of our diversity and inclusion agenda, and the Courageous Conversations have been a crucial means of encouraging this. They are designed to lead to ongoing discussions, and significantly are people-led rather than mandated by management. In August 2022 I led a campaign for Fat Liberation Month, which we believe to be the first of its kind in a UK law firm, to tackle fatphobia and size bias with an intersectional approach. 

Read these reflections by Women and Diversity in Law Awards judges on their careers and how to promote DE&I:

‘Take every opportunity as if this is your breakthrough moment’: a barrister’s journey from Tower Hamlets via the Magic Circle

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This has led to plans for a series of Courageous Conversations revolving around beauty standards; with each Conversation we have, new topics come to light, and more people feel able to speak up about their experiences. I now hope to explore options to improve accessibility from this angle, after conversations in August highlighted the weight and width restrictions of our chairs may not accommodate the needs of all our employees. Culture change and policy change need to go hand-in-hand, and at Browne Jacobson we strive to incorporate both with D&I at our firm.

In addition to our Courageous Conversations, part of the initiative involves lunchtime drop-ins, which follow a different but complementary format. Where our Courageous Conversations are recorded – so that colleagues unable to attend are able to watch the session back – the drop-ins are not, designed to be safe spaces where people can ask questions and explore sensitive topics together in a non-judgmental space.

I am incredibly proud to work for a firm so committed to improving diversity and inclusion, and one that values voices at all levels. I look forward to working alongside them, and bringing as many people as possible with us on the learning journey, showcasing our values of being pragmatic, down-to-earth, inclusive, ambitious, fair and collaborative.

Grace Woolford is a practice assistant at national UK law firm Browne Jacobson. She is one of the more than 300 nominees for the inaugural Women and Diversity in Law Awards

Further reading on diversity, equity and inclusion:

‘Tiny changes can have a massive butterfly effect’: Clifford Chance's UK inclusion head on her D&I story

‘Everyone’s been excluded': Accenture Legal's global diversity head on the power of empath

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