Leading arbitration lawyer Mélida Hodgson discusses overcoming the challenge of "invisibility syndrome" and promotes a holistic approach to improving diversity in the legal sector.
Diversity and inclusion to me means not being prejudged or not having one’s experience dismissed because you are not a majority person. To ensure a truly diverse and inclusive arbitration field requires affirmative efforts to check one’s own biases, and to include a more diverse group of practitioners in all aspects of our practice. Arbitration is an international/worldwide means of dispute resolution, and the practitioners and arbitrators providing that service should better reflect that world.
It starts with the clients – they have a huge role to play in fostering diversity in law. In the last few years in IA the focus has been on pressuring institutions to increase gender diversity in arbitral appointments – but it shouldn’t be just the responsibility of institutions. You often hear that clients are reluctant to take a chance on “unknowns” and therefore the usual recommendations for arbitrators must be made – even by female practitioners. I am not convinced that this is the case, especially if the client has hired a diverse lead or team. Clients generally trust their lawyers to given them the best advice or defence – doing that requires going the extra mile to ensure that you have actually sought to be as inclusive as possible when finding arbitrators or experts to recommend to clients. In addition, in the United States we are increasingly seeing corporate clients demand accountable diversity in teams that represent them – I would not be surprised to see this expanded to representation in international arbitration matters.
If arbitral institutions and law firms look, they will find ways to enhance gender and ethnic diversity in IA. Arbitral Women and the Pledge have done a lot to put gender diversity into the consciousness of institutions and law firms. In the wake of the protests over racial injustice in the United States, a number of law firms and practitioners have started initiatives to address the racial and ethnic disparities – committing to building a pipeline, mentoring, sponsorship, and promotion, as well as to looking more broadly for opportunities to appoint diverse arbitrators. And, as makes sense, some of these initiatives - for example, #REAL and the New List of Arbitrators of African Descent (August 2020 Update of the New List - Arbitrators of African Descent) – are international. I think that is necessary, as it is not a U.S. only issue.
I have not experienced impostor syndrome, what I have experienced is what I have sometimes amusingly referred to as the “invisibility syndrome” – that is, others attempting to make me feel that I don’t belong or am not qualified. I faced this challenge by not giving up – by being as visible as I can and reminding those people that I am more than qualified to be where I am.
Work hard and do excellent work – first and foremost. Diversity does not mean you get a pass. Also, remember that you are your own best advocate – speak up if you are not being treated fairly. Being your own best advocate also means promoting yourself – be involved in arbitral organisations, particularly their young affiliates that present opportunities to speak and heighten your profile. Finally, not least, promote and support each other. There is plenty of work for everyone.