Justine Cooper / Head of Brook Graham / Brook Graham from Pinsent Masons  / 
Different Dimensions

story / Interview / June 12, 2020

I first became aware of a passion for diversity in 2002. I was working for a large bank in London. I’m a human resources generalist. For the first time in my career and in my life, I was the only woman around the table. I was very definitely the object of a lot of unconscious bias, and lots of conscious assumptions and stereotypes all at the same time. I found it a very isolating and difficult time. I thought about leaving the bank and I went to try and find my tribe.

I joined a professional membership group called Women in Banking and Finance (WIBF).I met some amazing women who were so generous with their time and wisdom. I decided to tough it out. I had ten amazing years with that bank. I traveled all over Europe with them, worked in four different businesses, made some great friends and had some fantastic experiences. If it hadn’t been for those women early on, I would not have stuck it out. There were many thoughts and feelings I kept to myself at work. I was never courageous to call it out in the moment. I just hid it all.

I moved to Italy with the bank and I was no longer the only woman around the leadership table. I was the only non-Italian national. Everything from what time people start in the office, to how they have lunch, how decisions were made in the boardroom, to the humour that was part and parcel of fostering relationships – everything was turned completely on its head. I not only had to learn a different language, I had to learn a new way of working. It really sparked my curiosity around different dimensions of diversity beyond gender.

It made me think about the fact that in that first job at the bank, I was the only woman but there were a lot of other things that made me a majority – my sexual orientation, background, ethnicity, it made me think about other people around that table that were experiencing different minority dimensions. I had been so oblivious to that because I had been caught up in feeling like I was the only woman and subject to all of this banter. So I thought I’m going to do something with this and I started to bring it into my work.

It was about this time that Europe was starting to talk more openly in the media about the under-representation of women. So I developed the diversity strategy that focused initially on women, then on disability and then we broadened it to sexual orientation. I was really lucky that one of the diversity managers at the bank, who’d helped me when I first set up the diversity strategy in Italy, said ‘I really think you should meet these women I’m working with, Lesley Brook and Jacey Graham.’ I met up with them for a coffee and that was it!

I absolutely love Australia. I have been with my very patriotic Australian husband for over twenty years. A couple of weeks ago, I proudly became a new Australian and I did that with 166 new Australians from 32 different countries. It was such a wonderful celebration with so many different people, age groups, cultures and beautiful dresses! We all know the statistics, half of us were either born overseas, or our parents were, so we’re an incredibly multicultural country.

We’re also incredibly fortunate to have had six years of gender pay gap reporting in this country. There are so many jurisdictions today that I work in that don’t have that instrument or data. It enables us to be able to have a conversation at different levels of leadership and it raises awareness around what is happening. However I struggle with how poorly we are doing in a number of areas. If you look at the construction industry and where we are with the gender pay gap reporting it’s like – ‘why aren’t we making progress on this?’ We’ve got the data. We know how to unlock the challenges to gender equity. So why aren’t we making progress?

There are some great comments around normalising caring responsibilities among all working parents – not just working mothers. Yet in the last twenty years we’ve seen barely any movement in fathers taking parental leave. There was a great research paper published in December last year from the Advanced Parental Leave Equity Network and all the research says that working fathers want that time. It’s not that the burden is being shoved to working mothers.

If we look at cultural diversity and studies from the Australian Human Rights Commission and the proportion of the Australian labour force who have Asian cultural heritage, then you look at the proportion of representation of Asian cultural heritage amongst leadership in any industry in this country – it’s appalling. Yet every single one of those industries will have an Asian commercial segment – and Asian focus as part of their business strategy. So, why isn’t there that connectivity?  It’s such a massive gap.

If you look at the work around Indigenous engagement and any of the social and health measures – the ‘close the gap’ strategy – they get worse, they don’t get better. I feel quite angry about that. I know we need to channel that in a constructive way, but it feels like we have the data, legal instruments and we have awareness around this – so why aren’t we making measurable progress when we should be?

I find it quite amusing when I go to a barbecue here in Australia and all the men are in one corner and all the women are in another. It’s often talked about as a funny observation. I do think that there are some  deep rooted cultural norms. You hear it sometimes in the banter as well, ‘Oh that’s just the Aussie larrikin sense of humor.’ Whether there’s banter about women or banter about different ethnicities. And you think ‘Come on this is 2020 now! That’s not the way that we operate anymore!’

I listen to my youngest children (both still at high school) educating their father around indigenous history. My husband who’s 53, has a massive gap in his education around the history of this land. I can see what’s coming up in the next generation, which is fantastic. But you’ve got this huge majority and the people who would still make decisions today where there’s just so many so many blind spots. I think there is a long way to go.

My former mentor, Chris Lamb who continues to inspire me (he was the HR Director for Lendlease for many years),  talks about how he recognised that people listened to him as a white, middle-aged, straight male when for example he talked about gender. Where as a woman sitting next to him around the top table – people just didn’t hear her. He said that he knew he had this ‘superpower’ and I love that language. I think that’s fantastic. I have a superpower among some of the other dimensions of diversity. I may have felt under-represented historically in my career because of my gender, but there are so many other things about me that make me the majority, where I can use that for good.

I think the first thing that senior leaders can do is to learn to be curious themselves. It’s hugely powerful personally as well as professionally when you start to unpack what is going on. When you start to think of the role unconscious bias plays. The role that stereotypes play in the role of gender and culture. Having a growth mindset about these issues I think is really important.

The second thing is to really understand what is happening in your organisation. Most organisations have got all the data at their fingertips and you can actually glean what is happening when you look at that data. The candidate pipeline and what proportion of the different diversity dimensions that you can measure are applying for the jobs – well that tells you an awful lot in itself.  Then, running through the different stages of selection – is there unconscious bias at play or are you just not getting the candidates through that are representative of the communities that you’re living and working in? And where are the drop off rates? That tells you an awful lot about what is happening and where the under-representation is around the measures that you can actually track.

The other way you can see what’s happening is by asking people with culture surveys, engagement surveys. They don’t tell you all the answers, but they tell you what questions to ask. Then actually having the opportunity to engage with people and understand – how do you experience the culture? What are some of the challenges you are facing? And do you have any challenges with progressing your career? Actually understanding what is at play and really getting to understand how your people experience the culture.

The other thing I’ve seen really effectively with senior leaders is where they have immersive experiences. They actually get to experience what it feels like to be in the minority. I’ve seen really senior leaders walk into a room where they are the only man in a room full of women, talking and listening to how their people experience that organisation, and that can be incredibly powerful in helping to shift their perspective. It’s always very humbling for the male senior leader, they always feel a bit uncomfortable and it’s a great moment to be able to say ‘OK, that’s how I’ve felt through most of my career actually… ’

And I’ve seen it work with other dimensions of diversity. I’ve seen an organisation introduce a reciprocal mentoring scheme for LGBT+, with a senior partner of the firm who was straight, being mentored by a more junior member of the firm from the LGBT+ community. You shift the power of the mentoring relationship. The mentor is the person that’s more junior and the mentor comes from that particular diversity group that you are looking to focus on. It’s incredibly powerful because it does bring that shift in perspective at a human level. You connect to it in a way that if I was giving you a lecture about it, it’s not going to give you the same impact. Every single time I’ve seen it happen, a senior leader comes away with insights.

The next step from there is making sure that you’ve got the infrastructure in place. Ask, are we giving some rigour to this topic in the same way that we are talking about our P+L and our business priorities? Has the organisation got governance around it? Are there measures in place that are coming back to the team? Implementing some governance around who has accountability for it is critical.

I listened to somebody last year in the UK, who works in the disability space – and she talked about the concept of the magic three. In order to see progress you need to mobilise the magic three; the senior leaders at the top, your specialist (your HR function, your sustainability function, your D&I committee) and your employees as well. I can see organisations where there is this ground-swell of momentum building from the employee base and they are literally pushing people up at the top to act.

I try to channel my children. I try really hard not to give advice in life. I try really hard instead to share what’s worked for me and what I’ve seen, work for others, but I steer away from giving advice because everybody’s different. I feel like we all need to figure out what works for us. But I always share what works for me. I do try and channel with my girls to give them roots and wings. Roots so they feel grounded. They know where they’ve come from. And they feel really proud of that. And wings so they can fly. That always gets me!


Justine and Danielle met Justine at an event at Pinsent Masons late in 2019 and were blown away by her passion for diversity and equality. It amazes us how we can still be completely floored by someone’s presence given all the amazing women we have met on this journey, but Justine has held us in awe every time we have had the pleasure of engaging with her. Gazella has just turned 5 and it’s a pleasure to be bringing you Justine’s story. Her genuine passion, her integrity and her strength shine through her words. In times such as the world is experiencing right now, we need to question our privilege and continue to grow and evolve both individually and as a collective. We only hope you all get the pleasure of meeting Justine or hearing her speak in the future. As always, you can leave comments below. J&D xx

Add the first thought on "Justine Cooper / Head of Brook Graham / Brook Graham from Pinsent Masons"