Women’s schemes are the way forward

In February Herbert Smith launched its women’s network, known as ’Herbert Smith women in business’. It is believed to be one of the first internal women’s networks within a City law firm. Its introduction comes at a time when many other initiatives are being put in place in organisations across the country to make workplaces more flexible and attractive to women.

In the corporate sector there has been an explosion of women’s networks in the past decade. It coincides with the increasing number of women starting their own businesses and entering the workforce. In the City, women’s networks are most prevalent in the financial services and banking sector, where investor pressure and global media exposure has driven diversity practices for a number of years.

Herbert Smith, therefore, is far from being alone in recognising that there is a business case for supporting the recognition, promotion and retention of women within its wider diversity strategy. The firm’s strategy is not about positive discrimination, it is about ensuring that there is a level playing field, with the starting position being the assumption that the potential in its workforce is distributed evenly across the gender divide.

Research has also shown that internal staff networks can help to establish a sense of community and encourage loyalty within an organisation – a key factor in improving staff retention within a firm. As the war over recruiting the top talent and keeping the best people at all levels of the firm continues, firms are introducing a range of additional measures to attract people.

It is anticipated that initiatives such as these will become popular among law firms, not least because they are increasingly being asked by clients and potential clients to provide their diversity and corporate responsibility credentials. The Lawyer (19 March) reported that JPMorgan is requesting meetings with the key relationship partners from its panel of law firms to ensure that their diversity policies are in line with those of the bank.

The ’women in business’ initiative is open to all staff. It is run by a committee of female employees in both fee-earning and support roles. It aims to foster a supportive and inclusive environment to enable all employees to reach their full potential in the firm. Around one-third of all female staff at the firm have signed up since the scheme’s launch, so the appetite for the network within the firm is clear, and it was equally well received by those clients who attended the launch.

The network intends to address recruitment, networking and career development issues by providing practical support and advice through a range of speaker sessions, seminars, social events and business development initiatives. The committee has events lined up for the rest of the year, alongside which it intends to develop an informal programme of mentoring through the identification of role models within the firm.

Many obstacles still exist for women in business, whatever their choice of career. In an age where more and more women are juggling career and family life, it is evident that more support is required to help them attain their full potential and to reassure them that they are not abandoning a successful career if and when they seek to organise their time differently while raising children. Women in business need more on and off career ramps and, above all, flexibility. Networks such as ’women in business’ aim to go some way to smoothing the path.