Future of inclusive leadership: Empowering next generation

June 2017 | Outstanding

Empowering the next generation of leaders is at the very heart of OUTstanding’s ethos. In this interview, Sri Lankan lawyer, Aritha Wickramasinghe shares his resolute passion for championing inclusion and global human rights.

Have you always felt able to be yourself at work?

I’ve been out since my first day as a trainee lawyer at Clifford Chance. I came out in Sri Lanka, a country that criminalises homosexuality, as a 15 year old teenager. I was certainly not going to throw myself back in the closet that I left a long time ago. I made a point to be out about my sexuality from the start. I believe that if you are open and honest with colleagues, they will reciprocate with trust and respect.

As a gay Sri Lankan you are a step away from the typical white, heterosexual business leader. How has this affected your experiences in the workplace?

First of all, I would not call myself a business leader – at least not yet. But you’re right, my cultural identity, sexuality and history does and has always set me apart from the majority of my colleagues. But as much as we must learn to celebrate others’ differences, we must also learn to appreciate and love our own. If we learn to be empowered through our differences, then work becomes a much more positive experience where you are valued on your capabilities rather than judged on your diversity.

How did you decide to pursue the career that you are working in today? What was a pivotal moment? 

When I was 12, my teacher told me to start reading newspapers to increase my awareness of current affairs. From that point on, I would avidly read up on global affairs as well as local issues. At that time, there were many news stories about child sex abuse in Sri Lanka. This prompted me and some friends to start a child rights group designed to educate children and speak out about child abuse. We became part of a bigger movement, working with UNICEF and other organisations to campaign on children’s rights issues, and the movement was successfully able to bring about positive legislative changes at the time. It was at that point that I realised the law had the potential to bring about change in people’s lives and I wanted to be a part of that change.

What challenges does the legal sector face with regard to diversity and inclusion?

In the UK, the entire legal sector operates in the same way as it did centuries ago; from the way that firms are structured to the division of the profession between barristers and solicitors. The sector hasn’t changed, but society and the environments we work in have been transformed. The current system does no favours to those who are different to the leaders of the profession back in 1816. Although we are seeing more women, LGBT+ people and ethnic minorities in law than ever before, they mostly tend to disappear in the more senior levels of the profession. It doesn’t make sense that over 50% of lawyers are women but only 13% of them make partners or when less than 1% of law firm partners are LGBT+. The sector needs to go through a top down change so that it meets with the changes that have already taken place at the bottom.

Who are your role models?

I don’t have any one LGBT+ role model. For me, every single gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender person that comes out, embraces their sexuality or gender identity and is proud of who and what they are – they are my role models. These are the real heroes of the world – the ones who are not afraid to be themselves.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

When I was studying for my GCSE’s in Sri Lanka I had an excellent teacher, Ms Jayalath. One day, as I was making a lacklustre effort with my homework, she told me, “Aritha, you either aim for an ‘A’ or you aim to fail”. This is a piece of advice that I have carried with me and which I share with everyone else. Always remember, that when you do something, to give it your best. It just takes a little faith in yourself to achieve what you want to achieve.

What impact has being featured as the top LGBT+ Future Leader in the Financial Times had on you?

It was probably one of the most surprising moments of my life. It has given me a bigger platform than I could have ever imagined. To be ranked, and featured globally alongside industry giants such as Inga Beale and Mark Zuckerberg, has been a really humbling experience. It has given a lot more credibility and respect for the work that I have been doing, especially in the sphere of LGBT+ rights, pro bono and other human rights issues. People take me more seriously now.

What have you been doing since the lists were published?

My life has got a lot busier. I’ve been involved in pushing for legislative change in Sri Lanka, especially to decriminalise homosexuality and to strengthen the human rights framework protecting LGBT+ people.  I have helped found the Think Equal education initiative and have been busy setting up the LGBT+ chapter of iProbono’s new Justice Initiative. Visibility through the list has also led to me being invited to speak at events, both corporate and academic. It’s nerve wracking at times, but I’m grateful for the impact the list has had not only on my life, but on the lives of many others.

What advice would you give to senior business leaders who want to make their companies more inclusive?

I would start by saying, look carefully at your hiring and promotion processes. Inclusivity is not just a policy statement; it’s something you practice. Businesses need to look closely at how they hire. We need to move towards a culture where candidate qualities, traits and abilities are valued over which school or university they went to or where they come from. Once someone is in the job, businesses should look at performance and productivity when deciding on promotions, not whether you both share an interest in football.

When you retire, what do want your legacy to be?

We are all shaped by the lives that we touched and the people who have had an impact on our lives. I want to be remembered for the friendships I made, the jokes I cracked and the people I loved. Nothing more.

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