Lose the ‘glass ceiling’ mindset for female lawyers

Women will get a fairer shot at senior roles, says Linda Jones
Breaking the glass ceiling means clients will gain through access to a more diverse workforce. Picture: Phil WilkinsonBreaking the glass ceiling means clients will gain through access to a more diverse workforce. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Breaking the glass ceiling means clients will gain through access to a more diverse workforce. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

The phrase “glass ceiling” was first coined in 1984. Unfortunately, 30 years on, it still appears to be firmly in place when it comes to issues of gender balance at senior levels in the workplace.

At Pinsent Masons, we recently launched a comprehensive strategy to break through any glass ceilings that might still exist across our international network and to remove as far as possible any obstacles to progress preventing our female lawyers from reaching their full potential.

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At the same time, we believe the actions we are taking will benefit all our workforce, not just women, while clients will also gain through access to a more diverse workforce.

Our Project Sky initiative was born out of research and consultation and is aimed at significantly improving the balance of female representation in our partnership, which currently stands at 21 per cent, and in our senior leadership team, with female board membership currently standing at 18 per cent.

While our statistics benchmark reasonably well against the sector norm, we recognise there is a long way to go, especially factoring in that on average our annual intake of trainee lawyers is around 70 per cent female.

Our research, carried out by external consultants Female Breadwinners, found that like many other businesses, Pinsent Masons suffers from some age-old barriers to female career progression. Generally, those were: a perception that to become a partner you have to forsake any chance of work/life balance; a lack of true flexibility (agility) in the way we work; a lack of female role models; a need for greater transparency on what was needed to gain promotion; more support required around maternity leave, and tackling the unconscious bias which we all individually harbour.

Having identified these barriers, a set of recommendations was put to our board which was endorsed and is now being rolled out across the business. Our target is to ensure that, in time, at least 30 per cent of our partnership is female, and we have set a first benchmark which requires 25 per cent female partnership to be achieved by 2018.

To underpin this, all our senior leadership have undergone training which focuses on addressing unconscious bias and we require them to examine decisions they make regarding promotions, work allocation, recruitment and other areas where bias can creep in.

Another workstream looks at maternity and paternity support. We want it to be more acceptable for men to take leave, while ensuring women who take maternity leave are better supported before, during and after to minimise disruption caused to their career progression.

Flexible working has traditionally had a stigma attached to it – as something taken up only by working mums, who can feel that by requesting flexible working they are wrongly viewed as no longer being serious about their careers. It’s our aim to introduce a new approach to more “agile working” which should benefit the business as well as employees of both genders.

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A common thread is the requirement of a modern workforce to have increased flexibility in how they are allowed to perform their role. The “younger generation” coming through the ranks have a different expectation of what they want in terms of a work/life balance. That doesn’t just concern having a meaningful life outside the workplace, but being given more trust to do things differently, to work more autonomously and without the restrictions of a more traditional command/control model.

As far as talent development is concerned, in three of our practice groups we have introduced a pilot career-mapping project which encourages more transparency and open and honest conversations about career aspirations.

We do not want to enforce quotas – we don’t believe that is the best way to achieve better gender balance – but we do require practice groups to report on the gender balance of promotion shortlists at every level so they reflect the make-up of the talent pool.

Very few of the steps we are introducing are female-specific and in fact, our vision for Project Sky is that this cultural change should bring benefits to everyone working at Pinsent Masons, regardless of gender, and also to our clients.

Clearly, there is no straightforward solution to addressing gender imbalances in the workplace but we know that this is essentially a talent issue. Therefore, it’s vital we give this priority if we are to maintain our ability to attract and retain the best talent, and continue providing the best possible service to clients.

Ultimately, Project Sky will play an important role in ensuring that Pinsent Masons retains its reputation as the best place in Scotland for ambitious female lawyers to develop their careers and fulfil their true potential.

• Linda Jones is a partner with Pinsent Masons