five hundred magazine > The Big Issue: Women in Leadership > Breaking down the barriers facing female leaders

Breaking down the barriers facing female leaders

Alison Eddy, Irwin Mitchell’s managing partner in London, on creating a female friendly environment which has allowed the firm to attract the best and brightest

When I joined Irwin Mitchell with two other partners in 1995, to set up the London office, I had five children aged between three and 11 years old and juggled bringing in work, looking after clients, and building a team. No one at that time talked about work-life balance or flexible working, something I would certainly have benefited from. I care passionately about my job as managing partner for the London office and as a medical negligence lawyer, but I also care about advancing women in their careers. I have been a leading advocate of promoting a healthy work-life balance that provides the framework for women (and men) to achieve this goal.

It is now an accepted fact that gender diversity brings multiple benefits to a business, including improving business performance. No one sex holds all the answers and it is only by encouraging a fuller debate looking at all sides of an issue, that the best decisions can be made. And clients and potential clients believe in this, too, and increasingly want to see their advisors showing more than lip service to diversity issues.

Large law firms on the whole tend to employ fewer women than men. Irwin Mitchell is the exception to this rule. Women represented 65% of our qualified lawyer cohort last year, up 1.6% from the previous year. We have worked hard to create a female-friendly environment. Five of our six medical negligence partners in London are women. I lead the IMPowered section of the Irwin Mitchell Diversity Board, which supports our work on gender equality. We regularly host events and run initiatives to address how we can support the development of women in the business.

Through holding workshops we have identified the key barriers to women in leadership. These are: the availability of flexible working; unconscious bias; gender pay; the need for training, mentoring, and reverse mentoring; and the importance of visible role models. We have fed our findings back to our executive board which has acted on our recommendations. This is what we’ve done:

  • Flexible working: We see a flexible working culture as critical to improving diversity and have now introduced flexible hours across our business. There has been a 20% increase in formal flexible working requests in the last year and 43% of our people now work flexibly.
  • Unconscious bias: In a recent survey by the Law Society of England and Wales, unconscious bias was the reason most commonly cited for women failing to reach senior positions in law firms. We have introduced mandatory unconscious bias training for everyone involved in recruitment and all team leaders. People are often surprised to discover they have an unconscious bias – when a woman returns from maternity leave she will feel she wants to be leaving her child for work that stretches her and will help advance her career – but her line manager may, for benign reasons, not give her demanding work, hence removing the opportunity for recognition and promotion. The value of communication can’t be over emphasised.
  • Gender Pay Gap: We were one of the first firms to include partners in our gender pay report and introduced moderation of pay and bonus recommendations to ensure fairness and consistency. We added a gender pay calculation so that the impact of recommendations on the gender pay gap can be seen. Last year we were in the top seven law firms for smallest gender pay gap. Our gender pay and bonus gap are improving year on year. Our ambition is to eliminate the pay gap entirely but that will mean more men working part time and in support roles.
  • Leadership training: We recognise that we need to develop leaders who are currently under represented which will help to not only develop female leaders but also BAME, LGBT, and leaders with disabilities. We have introduced an inclusive leadership programme to help achieve this.
  • Mentoring: We have introduced formal mentoring and reverse mentoring programmes to build more supportive networks across Irwin Mitchell. Feedback has been excellent, particularly from senior male partners mentoring and being mentored by more junior women.
  • We launched a Modern Life group in 2017 creating a safe space for colleagues of all genders to discuss the joys and difficulties of starting and keeping healthy families of all shapes and sizes – be it through IVF, adoption, natural conception, surrogacy and other methods – whilst balancing a career. In collaboration with our HR team the group holds sessions and shares case studies to help improve work-life balance and emotional wellbeing of colleagues struggling with the demands of modern life.
  • We have appointed Healthy Minds Advocates in all our offices to actively promote the wellbeing of all sexes and have signed the Mindful Business Charter demonstrating our commitment to driving a change to how we work to remove unnecessary stress at work and promote better mental health and wellbeing.
  • We celebrate the success of our women. Among our lawyers a number of our leading legal lights are female. Recent standout work by our remarkable women includes the Court of Appeal case XX v Whittington Hospital NHS Trust, in which our senior associate, Anne Kavanagh, acted for the claimant (who was rendered infertile by negligent late diagnosis of cervical cancer), and who recovered the costs of commercial surrogacy in California despite such arrangements being prohibited across the UK. And employment partner Emilie Cole who has just advised Judge Gilham on the high profile whistleblowing case in the Supreme Court. The five justices, led by Lady Hale, unanimously found that to deny judges from whistleblowing protection is a denial of their human rights. This case has widespread ramifications for any office holder, be they in the church, a trade union, or the trustee of a charity. And there’s Anita Jewitt, one of our medical negligence partners, who has been recognised by The First 100 Years project as an Inspirational Woman in Law. Seeing women taking the lead role in high-profile cases encourages and inspires our younger solicitors. They know they will be judged on merit and encouraged to push forward.
  • We have been working collaboratively with the inspirational First 100 Years project and the Law Society this year, celebrating the achievement of women in law. We have produced a timeline of women in Irwin Mitchell and have been sharing case studies of our female leaders every month. Our timeline shows we only appointed our first female partner in 1985, but women have really stepped up with 43% of IM partners now female. Our ambition is to push this to at least 50%. We recognise the need for relatable role models who are able to share their stories of how they made it into senior roles while juggling the demands of family commitments and a life outside of work.
  • Recruitment: We publish our family-friendly policies on our website. We have also implemented blind screening for our graduate and apprentice recruitment, bringing us a wider pool from which to recruit. Recruitment agencies are incentivised to produce diverse shortlists for leadership roles. As a result we have successfully attracted senior female talent; three of our four new senior recruits in IT are female.

So what is the result of all this? There is no doubt we have seen considerable change, particularly in the last five years. 30% of our executive board, 43% of our partners, 62% of our associates, and 73% of our people are female. 77% of our recent partner promotions were women. We recognise and reward leadership qualities in our women. I was the first female managing partner appointed in 2012 and now nine of our 13 regional managing partners are women. The head of our Business Legal Services Division (BLS) is a woman, as is the head of BLS in London. Of firms with more than 40% of female partners, Irwin Mitchell is the largest of these with 108 women in its partnership of 250 last year. This is something I am extremely proud of. And I am delighted to say that diversity is the highest-rated question in our engagement survey year on year.

When I started my career there were no particular senior female role models and no one to mentor me. Fortunately, I did have a male supervising partner who pushed me out of my comfort zone which helped me develop self-belief and to succeed. Support from men is essential if we are to achieve true diversity and inclusion.

Today most firms have recognised the importance of diversity and are trying hard to progress, but it is a long, slow road to change some entrenched cultures. I have been fortunate to have been in a position to help develop the culture of my firm, and as more and more women come into the law, I hope we will continue to attract many of the best and the brightest going forward.