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Podcast summary

In this episode, Neena Gupta, co-chair of Gowling WLG Canada’s National Diversity and Inclusion Council, shares how her experiences with unconscious bias as a young associate motivated her to champion diversity and inclusion in the legal profession, and develop new programs to foster D & I in the workplace.

Episode tip

"I think that when we are in meetings and groups, [we need to make more of] an effort to ensure that everybody’s ideas really get a chance and that when somebody junior [...] comes up with a good idea, to make sure that person gets the credit or the recognition for it." — Neena Gupta, Partner at Gowling WLG


Episode guest

Neena Gupta

Neena is a partner in our Waterloo Region and Toronto offices, with a focus on employment law. She is also a well-respected speaker, and has taught human rights law at both the University of Toronto and Queen's University as an adjunct professor.

To learn more about Neena, visit her bio or connect with her on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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Podcast transcript

Roberto: Welcome to Diversonomics. The podcast about all things diversity in the legal profession. We are at episode 4. I am your co-host, Roberto Aburto, a lawyer at Gowling WLG in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, practicing in municipal law and litigation. I am also one of the co-chairs of our National Diversity and Inclusion Council.

Sarah: I’m your co-host, Sarah Willis. I’m also of Gowling WLG practicing in commercial litigation and normally I’m in Ottawa but my UK adventures continue here in our Birmingham office.

Roberto: After our last episode with Lorna Gavin I understand there was some festivities in the Birmingham office. What was going on that day?

Sarah: Yes. At Gowling WLG in Birmingham we hosted a cocktail reception to celebrate Stonewall. Gowling WLG works really closely with this organization in the UK. It’s goal is to make a difference for LGBT people at work, home and in their communities. So the goal is to challenge homophobic and transphobic bullying, celebrating differences and improving inclusion and visibility of role models. So they work closely with a lot of the organization and businesses here and they do some fantastic work. The cocktail reception was great. There were representatives from Gowling, from the City of Birmingham, obviously from Stonewall, as well as a number of local businesses and organizations. It really was just a great thing to see the work that they have been doing in Birmingham, both at Gowlings, as well as in the wider community.

Roberto: It’s always exciting to see those kind of relationships and they have really been developing recently. Glad to see you could take that in and share that with us. Today we have our first Canadian guest. She is the other co-chair of our National Diversity and Inclusion Council and we are going to talk about diversity and inclusion at Gowling WLG in Canada. We’ll discuss what we are doing and what is coming soon.

Sarah: I am very excited to introduce our guest and Neena, I don’t believe we have had the opportunity to meet in person before. Neena Gupta is a partner in the Waterloo region in Toronto area. She focuses on a broad range of employment and human rights matters. Neena was called to the bar in 1988 in Saskatchewan and 1989 in Ontario. She has been recognized as one of the best lawyers in Canada as well as listed in the Canadian Legal Expert Directory as one of the premier employment lawyers in Canada. Naturally we are very excited to welcome Neena. Welcome!

Neena: Wow! Thank you for having me on Diversonomics.

Sarah: Did we miss anything when we listed your areas of practice and accomplishments?

Neena: No, not at all. I’ve really been interested in diversity and inclusion for a long time. I did my Masters in Human Rights in 1992/1993 at the University of Toronto and I have worked with a lot of legal organizations on these issues as well.

Sarah: Fantastic. With diversity and inclusion at Gowling WLG what has been your experience so far?

Neena: Before I even became D and I culture with Roberto I have been doing a lot of work on diversity and inclusion with the Canadian Bar Association as one of the early chairs of the Bare Equity Committee. I have been on the Law Society Equity Advisory Committee to help the Law Society with some work on that issue and now working on those issues with the Advocates’ Society, which is an organization of what I guess the British would call barristers or court room lawyers. This is really a passion of mine.

Roberto: You and I have a bit of a unique history. You actually hired me. I’ll start off with a big thank you for that.

Neena: A big thank you and thank you for accepting our offer but interesting, when people look at you Roberto, they wouldn’t think of you as being sort of a “diverse candidate”, but when I interviewed you I thought that because you came from an immigrant background and really came from a working class background, that that was really important that you would bring something to the table that perhaps other candidates would not.

Roberto: I think it has worked out. I have really enjoyed working for the organization. They keep having me back so that is a good sign.

Neena: Sure it is.

Roberto: You have also had an interesting career and I always find your stories interesting. Can you share a little bit about some of your experiences in the legal market pre-Gowling WLG?

Neena: Absolutely. I articled with the Government of Saskatchewan in pre-history. Had a really good exposure to constitutional law amongst the other areas and then came to Toronto and worked with a firm that is no longer around. Really that is where I developed my interest in employment and human rights. Also started working with some of the bar organizations I mentioned earlier. About 11 or 12 years ago I wanted a change in my life. I didn’t want to be in downtown Toronto anymore and Gowling Lafleur Henderson, as it then was, made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

Roberto: In terms of your career were there any unique challenges that you think you had to deal with.

Neena: Yes and it’s funny. I see it now more clearly than I did at the time. When I came out of law school I think I was really naive. I was a good law student. I graduated near the top of my class, I was eager and hardworking and I really thought that meritocracy worked. In other words, if I worked hard and kept my mouth clean and did the right things that I would progress like anybody else.

I think I used the university model where I think there is some effort at being colour blind or gender blind. It’s true as my model working in the profession and once I came to the profession I realized it’s not true. One of the old adages, it’s not what you know but who you know, well, there’s a reason why that cliché has been around forever. It’s because there is a great deal of truth to it. So I saw people who were better connected than I was. I didn’t have any lawyers in my family to know any lawyers when I was growing up. I didn’t realize how important mentorship was, not just in terms of getting the right files, but sort of navigating the politics of the law firm. I didn’t even realize there was a lot of politics in a law firm. I think I was really naive as a young articling student and as a young associate.

One of the things that I noticed, and I have a particular file in mind, and there was no doubt that I was probably, as a young associate, one of the best employment/human rights lawyers. I had done litigation but I also specialized in employment law and there was a huge file that came in. The partner needed an associate and I wasn’t even considered. They went to another great associate who had done no employment law at that point but they were buddies and that was probably the first time I realized that gender makes a difference. Your background makes a difference. Who you know really makes a difference.

Roberto: Right. It’s interesting as we try and sort of work through that. To try and help make it more equitable. That there is not a one size fits all answer, I don’t think.

Neena: No. A lot of this isn’t deliberate. It’s not like anybody says to me “On well, we don’t want to give you this file because you’re a woman or you’re from an East Indian background.” It was more they felt more comfortable with a guy. They felt more comfortable with somebody who shared their religious background or cultural background. I was excluded but it wasn’t a deliberate decision on anybody’s part.

Roberto: Right. So now you’re one of our co-chairs of our National Diversity and Inclusion Council. Tell us a little bit about the Council.

Neena: It’s very exciting. The Council is a National Council. We have representatives from both staff and the professional complimenting each of our 7 offices across the country. We are also supplemented by some of the excellent administrative staff that we have like the senior administrative staff in our office. Our goal is to make our firm one of the most diverse and inclusive in the country and a great group of amazing and committed people.

Sarah: That’s fantastic. I understand the Council is split up into various working groups. Why did you decide to structure it that way?

Neena: We are still pretty new. We were really formed and got started in early 2015 and at the beginning we were just trying to figure out where are we going to focus our energies. We were really in the planning stages and what works and what doesn’t work. We have now gone beyond that stage and we have now created areas that we want to focus on and we have plans for each of those areas. In order to become more effective we decided to keep people focused on one or two issues. We have divided into really 3 major groups.

The most important in my view is recruitment and retention. How do we recruit diversely and how do we make sure people feel included once we have recruited them and how do we keep them throughout their careers?

Many firms have good success in attracting a great and diverse and compliment of people and then 5 years out, or 7 years out, when we are looking at partnership decisions, women have disappeared and minorities have disappeared in a far higher proportion than they should have. How do we fix that?

Communication is really important. People need to know that we care about diversity and inclusion, what we’re doing and how they can participate. Finally, we implement that, if you will, by education and events which tends to be very labour intensive. So we’ve divided into 3 groups so that we can get more done and then we meet, as a whole, every 2 months to touch base and see how we can help each other.

Sarah: In terms of the recruitment and retention what are some things you’re doing? I guess in recruitment it might be a little bit more obvious but in terms of retention what are some things the Council is doing on that front?

Neena: We are still in early stages but one of the things that we’re going to be looking at is mentorship, making sure that young lawyers and associates, regardless of their background, have strong connections with senior associates, junior partners and senior partners. We address some of that unconscious bias, if you will, or the lack of connection to the Firm and also that people have a safe place to talk about some of the pricklier issues in practice. How do I navigate someone who I feel is treating me poorly and not giving me fair chance? Or how do I deal with a maternity or parental leave or an illness? People need to have mentors who can help them navigate those difficult issues.

Sarah: I feel that would address some of the issues that come up individually as opposed to more systemic larger issues. You can really hone in and work with each individual identifying what their needs are. I think that is fantastic. I understand that there are a lot of things on the go with respect to education and events. I know I attended some of the events before I left for the UK like the Day of Pink. Can you tell me a little bit about the events that the D and I Council have been putting on?

Neena: We have been having so much fun and that is actually one of the goals. Sometimes I think when people talk about diversity and inclusion, it’s a very serious topic, but people are afraid to talk about it, they’re worried about being politically incorrect and we wanted to make sure people understood that inclusion can be really liberating and fun and it’s for everybody.

The Day of Pink is one of my favourite events and so we got to essentially support an important cause which is inclusion of the LGBTQ community, support anti-bullying, recognize it’s a serious issue. It can be a serious issue here, it can be a serious issue out there in the “real world”, but we also got to celebrate our goofy side and wear pink and wear boas. Dress up differently and just think “this is okay, we can embrace this part of our ourselves and our colleagues without having to be scared about it”.

Sarah: Right.

Neena: Some of the other things you will see as we roll out is there is going to be tremendous focus on unconscious bias training. I know that there is still people out there that deliberately will not work with someone if they are female or they are minority or maybe a disability, whatever. That exists. But far more prevalent are the unconscious assumptions we make about each other as to who is going to be the right fit, who is going to be a good team member, who can I work with. How do we address that? We are rolling out a pretty intensive training program across the country to deal with that.

Roberto: What does the Council have going on on the communication front?

Neena: Some amazing things are happening and kudos to Julie Fregeau of our Montreal office and Julie Wilson of the Waterloo region office. We now have quarterly newsletters and we have amazing support from our business development and marketing groups so that the graphics really pop up and support our message. Peter Lukasiewicz, our CEO sends periodic messaging and highlights of our D and I initiatives so we have become from being zero in January 1, 2015 to something that is much more top of line within the Firm. People know we exist, people know what we are doing, people know who to reach out to if they have a concern or an idea.

Roberto: One of the things that I really like is sort of a subtler piece. On our internal intranet we’ve got a ticker that has business development announcements “So and so spoke at a conference” and there has been the diversity addition to that. What kind of things have appeared in that?

Neena: Some of the things that have appeared have been reporting and photographs from our various education and events. Our Day of Pink, we flooded it with great photographs from all of the offices, the National Aboriginal Day, we had specific events at various offices which was very interesting. We had articles that have been posted for Black History Month. Webinars have been posted for International Women’s Day. Sometimes it’s wacky and irreverent and sometimes it is very serious but again it helps hammer home the message that D and I is important to this firm and there are resources throughout the Firm to help people.

Roberto: Really great to see in front of mind every day. I guess the other thing is Gowlings combined with Wragge Lawrence Graham to form Gowling WLG. With this combination how has that impacted the diversity and inclusion front?

Neena: I think it has just been overall a great positive thing for us. We have collaborated with our UK colleagues on a couple of things. I think Sarah, you mentioned the Stonewall organization in the lead up to this podcast, and one of the things that Stonewall does is a country by country survey. Because of our UK colleagues we got introduced to Stonewall and we are helping Stonewall on a pro bono basis to do some high level overview of LGBTQ rights and litigation in Canada and so that opportunity wouldn’t have come to us but for our combination with Gowlings WLG UK. We have also done some events like the Day of Pink. Now I wasn’t there but I understand that the UK offices participated in that and that was a lot of fun.

Sarah: They did. They were talking about it quite a bit here. Everyone thought it was such a fantastic event and we’re very happy to have imported it from Canada.

Neena: Yes. Absolutely. The ideas go both directions across the pond, if you will. We worked together on International Women’s Day. One of the things that the UK offices do is Inclusion Week and, unfortunately, we were not able to participate in a full week of events, but we participated on the International Women’s Day and we were invited to participate in the seminar on what constitutes inclusive leadership. We have seen a remarkable effort of both the UK people and us to work together. We meet regularly. We attend each other’s meetings. We get inspired by each other’s ideas. We got a lot of media coverage when the combination went public in Q1 of 2016. We got a lot of coverage and a lot of kudos for using the combination as an opportunity to leverage, not just financial metrics and practice areas, but also to work on our work place culture and making it more diverse and inclusive. That was a lot of fun to get publicly recognized for the hard work everyone is doing on this issue.

Roberto: What do you think some of the keys are for long term success for the National Council?

Neena: There are a lot factors. One is bringing in new people. We need to make sure that it is astatic with January 1, 2015, are constantly bringing in new people and new ideas. Two is budget. Once we start travelling and doing training, and even doing national video conferences, it is surprisingly how expensive it can get. Three is executive support. In practice I think we have 100% commitment from the executives. This means something. That this is important. Seeing diverse and inclusive is who we want to be and we want to be known for that and we cannot make cultural shifts and change at this caliber without executive support.

Roberto: That’s what has been really fun from, my standpoint, to see the support, the fact that the Board of Trustees, the Management Committee are having us in front of them, reporting on diversity and inclusion, because they are asking for that information and obviously I agree 100% that that support is essential for this to move more and more as we really want to. What are some tips individuals can do to improve diversity and inclusion in wherever they are?

Neena: I’ve been thinking a lot about that actually and trying to blog about this. I think all of us have an opportunity to make, not just Gowling WLG, but the legal profession, our communities, more inclusive. One of the things that I suggest is that where we have an opportunity, maybe we belong to an organization and we are sort of comfortable in that organization, really reach out to people. Maybe there is somebody new at a cocktail party or a seminar. Maybe there is somebody you meet casually who might be interested in your group. Reach out your hand, invite them, introduce them to other people and help that person feel comfortable and inclusive, included in that group. Obviously if you are an associate or partner at Gowling WLG that will be in this work place. But it can also be in your church community or in an association you belong to outside of work. Because we are trying to really create a cultural change, right? That is something that every person can do.

The other thing that all of us need to be aware of is there is a lot of sociological evidence that who says the idea tends to matter. If a white senior male says something that idea will be have much more attraction than maybe if a junior minority female associate says it. I think that when we are in meetings and groups, really make an effort to ensure that everybody’s ideas really get a chance and that when somebody junior, or maybe not in the industry, comes up with a good idea to make sure that person gets the credit or the recognition for it and encouraging them to speak out. These are things that I think we can all do because these things happen in everyday life as well as here at Gowling WLG.

Sarah: That’s fantastic advice Neena, thank you. Thank you so much for being here with us today. This has been an episode of Diversonomics. If you ever have any questions, comments or ideas for topics and guests please look us up at and get in touch with us. Also make sure to check the show notes for this episode at Last, but not least, make sure to subscribe on iTunes so you don’t ever miss an episode. While you are it feel free to leave us a review and let us know what you think.

Roberto: Neena, do you have anything to plug? Any Twitter or blogs?

Neena: Well, you know, lots but one of the things that I do is I am one of the Twitterers, chief twit, whatever you want to call it, for Gowling WLG. My Twitter feed is @gowlingwlg_hr and I often will forward or tweet out articles about diversity and inclusion, particularly in the legal sphere but elsewhere as well. If you follow me @gowlingwlg_hr you can get more ideas.

Roberto: Great. You can also follow me on Twitter @robaburto. Diversonomics was presented to you by Gowling WLG and produced by Jessica Bowman with special thanks to Amanda Russo and their help desk for helping us get coordinated for this episode. Until next time, go forth and be inclusive.