Legal eagles smash glass ceiling: Company puts strategy in place to ensure fair distribution of top roles
An international law firm with offices in Belfast is aiming to get more women into top roles and hopes that females will eventually account for 30% of its partners.
Pinsent Masons employs more than 2,500 people in 18 offices globally, including around 100 in Belfast.
More than 20% of the firm's partnership is female, while two out of the nine board members are women – rising to three in August.
The firm has now launched Project Sky to remove barriers which are stopping women from progressing to the highest levels of the legal profession. Among the initiatives will be more flexible working arrangements, more support for parental leave, and more mentoring and training.
Andrea McIlroy-Rose, a partner in the firm's Belfast office and head of its retail property department, chairs the internal group Female Futures, which mentors women within the firm.
She said that as 70% of the lawyers coming into the business are female, the proportion of women in partnership does not reflect women's contribution to the profession.
"Initiatives like this reflect the fact that the landscape has changed for the whole legal profession," she said.
"I was the first female partner in L'Estrange & Brett, which merged with McGrigors in 2009, which was then acquired by Pinsent Masons," she said.
"Pinsent Masons would have quite a good percentage of female partners but across the profession the number is still very low when you consider how many women come in at trainee stage."
She said there were reasons why women tended to step out of the profession, despite large numbers joining it.
"I think the barriers are to do with timing and presenteeism," she said. "People feel that they need to be in the office until all hours, which can be off-putting if they have children or are considering having children in future.
"However, while obviously you have to see clients and engage with colleagues, it's not about where you work or how long you spend in the office, it's about the quality of work that you are producing."
Ms McIlroy-Rose said the firm had talked to other businesses with "a better gender balance" to find out how they had achieved it.
"We are mentoring women and we think that rather than spending mornings and late afternoons sitting in traffic trying to get into or out of the office, our staff could be working a lot more productively and profitably somewhere else," she said.
"You don't always have to be in one place in order to do your work, especially in a company with offices around the world."
New partner Laura Gillespie, who was appointed in May, agreed that perception and confidence were big issues.
"Sometimes someone might look at a career path and think 'is that something I am able to achieve' and might hang back," she said.
"But the opportunities are there to be grasped. The workplace now is more flexible, the world is changing and firms are adapting to those changes.
"Not having as many women in top roles is not something unique to this firm but this firm is being very pro-active in helping redress the balance."
Thirty companies in Northern Ireland have signed up to an initiative aimed at getting women at the helm of 30% of Northern Ireland's top firms by 2017.
Just five of our top 100 businesses are led by females.
Signatories to the Women in Business 30/30 Vision scheme include bus builder Wrightbus and planemaker Bombardier Aerospace.