This article was contributed by DWF executive partner and head of retail, food and hospitality Hilary Ross for International Women’s Day 2017

Studies show that diverse firms grow and are more likely to innovate. Diversity, of course encompasses many strands but nevertheless gender continues to lead the way in terms of headlines, political will and business engagement. Achieving a gender balance at senior levels is the litmus test for diversity but continues to be a challenge for businesses across London. 

Hilary Ross

Yesterday DWF received the results of a survey we are undertaking to identify drivers and blockers for growth amongst London based FTSE companies. As part of this 150 C-suites were asked, “What do you think the key challenges to women in business are?” 57 per cent said senior management don’t see gender equality as a priority.

This seems to be an issue across most of the sectors we looked at, and particularly in retail, healthcare, banking, transport and professional services. Other factors cited as key challenges to women in business were unconscious bias (40 per cent of respondents), stereotyping of ability and aspirations and lack of female role models. Yet all of the companies interviewed are seeking to grow and all are seeking new ways of doing this.   

Results like this are sadly not surprising but can be disheartening. I entered the legal profession in the early 90s when female “role models” were thin on the ground in business in general and in the legal profession in particular. Female lawyers tended to adopt a “ball busting” persona, were often unmarried and usually childless; one of the first lessons a kindly female assistant told me I needed to learn was how to cry in the loos without my mascara running.  

The profession is not yet where it needs to be but things are changing. Ten years ago the issue of unconscious bias would not have been identified in a main stream survey as an issue, never mind a blocker to growth, and would have had many partners scratching their head saying that some of their best friends were women.

Clients have been critical in this process – with several demanding that diverse teams are put forward to lead pitches and undertake the work if they are successful. Law firms are also waking up to the benefits of a diverse and inclusive work force. There are regular reports on initiatives across firms to drive diversity from apprenticeships and blind CVs  to flexible working.

Before joining DWF I was told that it was the firm’s ambition to be recognised as a leading employer and business, where diversity & inclusion is genuinely embedded into the firm’s way of doing business. This sounded great but then again I have never worked at law firm that did not proclaim to have such ambitions.

Over the last five years at DWF I have witnessed and been part of a genuine commitment, not only to talk the talk – we have listened to both women and men in our business to get a handle on what our people say are barriers to progression, either perceived or real. Based on this feedback we are embedding a culture of mentoring and working with our own leadership to recognise unconscious bias and inspire talent.

In the London office we have a culture of agile working which allows people flexibility to balance their  home and work commitments. Led by Seema Bains, our diversity agenda is wide-ranging with initiatives to help women and girls achieve their ambitions; challenge conscious and unconscious bias; call for gender-balanced leadership; value women and men’s contributions equally; and most importantly create inclusive flexible cultures.

We also began to see real change at the top levels of management within DWF with female representation on our Strategic Board increasing from 10 per cent to 30 per cent. This was a real turning point as the positions on the strategic board were elected by the partners (predominantly male). Six partners ran for three places: from these six, two were women- myself and Claire Bowler who was six months pregnant at the time. We campaigned on the basis of our achievements not our sex. We were both elected. This drove it home to both of us that as a firm we were starting to walk the walk.

Is it enough? Of course not – no law firm can be said to have truly cracked the issue of diversity. More must and can be done. However looking back over my career I am heartened to see that more is being done and it is being done better.

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