How can SMEs support women and diversity?

Today marks International Women’s Day – a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. In 2018, more than ever, there is a strong call-to-action for businesses to be gender inclusive. To celebrate International Women’s Day we hear from Heart of the City Foundation member, Obelisk Support on their innovative flexible approach to working and share some top tips on what SMEs can do to support women in the workplace.

On March 8, 2018, millions around the world will celebrate International Women’s Day but at Obelisk Support, we celebrate women in law every day. We are an award-winning legal services provider based in London, working with FTSE100 companies and large law firms by connecting their legal teams to highly-experienced corporate lawyers who want to work flexibly, whether for family or other reasons.

While this seems perfectly reasonable in 2018, it was revolutionary when the business was founded in 2010 by Dana Denis-Smith. After becoming dismayed at the numbers of female lawyers she saw leaving the profession for family reasons, she realised that this could be a key pool of talent for innovative firms and in-house legal teams open to a more flexible approach to getting their work done. Today, we work with over 1,000 lawyers, including many women returning after a career break, and have become an industry champion for women in law.

Take a recent example. A few days ago we received this query: “I recently had a baby and am looking for more flexible ways of working in the future.” This was not an unusual request – we get contacted regularly by lawyers who no longer want to work 9-5 and are looking for work more suited to their life pressures. However, they are also top tier lawyers as evidenced by the second part of the email. It read, “I’m Oxbridge educated, City trained and have an impeccable professional track record with global banks and FTSE100 companies.” Along came a list of references. Here was a woman who combined professional expertise with high education, exposure to the best legal teams and a business mindset. Yet, would she find work as a lawyer that allowed her to work differently?

In our experience, a career break or flexible work request for family reasons is enough for HR departments and recruiters to write off perfectly capable candidates. In an ultra-connected world, how is this possible? Diversity implies many things, including being flexible when it comes to work solutions and the way work is delivered. We are very proud to be able to match our legal consultants with employers who value their expertise and business sense more than where they sit or when they work.

Debbie Tembo, Client Relationship Manager at Obelisk Support who chaired a panel on diversity in the legal profession at BPP Law School, noted that sheforshe is a big deal – women need to be supporting each other at all levels within a business and within professions, champion each other at every opportunity. Courage and being bold in your career is critical to initiating the change that you want to see and be in your career.
She particularly liked the five qualities that make a great lawyer, applicable to any career: 1) resilience, 2) realism, 3) be brilliant at what you do, 4) fake it till you make it, and 5) be you.

In addition to our business, our team is very involved with The First 100 Years, a project founded in 2014 by our CEO, Dana Denis-Smith (left) with charity Spark21 to document the first hundreds years of women in law. Did you know that until The First 100 Years was created, nobody knew who were the female legal pioneers? While the history of men is quite well recorded, who has been keeping track of the first female judge? The first Welsh woman to qualify as solicitor? The first woman to hold the post of first parliamentary counsel?

Without The First 100 Years, these names and, most importantly, the battles these women fought to get to where they got, would fall into oblivion. If it’s true that we need to understand our past to prepare our future, then we need to chart a complete picture of the legal profession to move forward. We owe this to our daughters – giving them the stories of legal pioneers and role models to dream big. We hope that you will follow our journey as we reach the centenary of the the “Berlin Wall” of women in law, the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, in December 2019.

 We would like to share these three tips that SMEs can do right now in their business to support women.

  1. Listen – ask your female employees what you can do to make their work easier. A simple email survey, guaranteeing anonymity, is easy to set up, free and can lead to creative work solutions you may not have considered before.
  2. Get leadership buy-in. If the boss believes neither in flexibility nor remote work, employee adoption of a flexible work plan is likely to fail or worse, to ostracise those who take advantage.
  3. Update your technology by introducing remote working tools for SMEs. Whether it’s Slack for internal communications, Google Drive or another cloud-based work solution to share work documents, there are user-friendly and safe ways to work remotely as a team.

Last but not least, be open to explore new ways to work and empower your team by putting them in charge of internal changes. Trusting employees with business change is often misunderstood as losing control but it’s the best way to make sure they are engaged and involved when it comes to big decisions. Good luck.

Laure Latham,
Marketing Manager at Obelisk Support

Sign up to our Newsletter
City of London Corporation

Heart of the City London Limited, company number 5973126. Registered charity number 1117212.
Registered office: Atlantic House, 21 Holborn Viaduct, London, EC1A 2FG
© Heart of the City.

Purr Digital