For International Women’s Day, we take a closer look at five of our women colleagues to understand what it’s like to work in what is still considered as a male-dominated industry.
International Women’s Day is an event that looks to celebrate women’s achievements across the globe and from all walks of life. Its roots can be traced back to 1908, when 15,000 women marched through the city of New York, demanding better pay, shorter working hours and the right to vote.
In celebration of IWD, we have interviewed five of our women colleagues to understand more about their backgrounds and get under the skin of what it’s like to work in what is still considered as predominately ‘a man’s world’ – the legal industry.
Catherine Polli: I am Head of our Family and Client Services departments.
Jackie Shallow: I am Finance Director, overseeing the day-to-day running of the accounts department.
Sue Nash: I am a Senior Associate within our Family team.
Sharyn De Araujo: I work within our Residential Property department as a Team Assistant, predominately working alongside Paul Berry.
Kayleigh O’Donnell: I am a solicitor in the Private Client department, and specialise in elderly client services, namely Wills, Tax, Trusts, Lasting Powers of Attorney and Court of Protection matters.
Kayleigh: I come from quite a working-class background. My mum had me at 16 and was adamant that I would succeed in life. Nobody in my family at this point had been to university, so there was a big push for me to achieve. I went on to study law at the University of Essex and adored it; my support system at home definitely helped me to become the person I am today.
Jackie: I actually started working here over 30 years ago, before Talfourds and Pinney Rogers merged in 2009. I came from a generation where women were expected to raise their families, and for husbands to be the breadwinners of the household. My children initially did come first – when they went to school, I picked my career back up and worked my way up from being a cashier to a Finance Director as I am today. I think it’s all down to being able to adapt to change within the workplace.
Catherine: I had always wanted to be a barrister from a young age; I practised in London for 7 years before becoming disillusioned with legal aid and life at the Bar generally. I was then considering a completely different career – either in the foreign office, or PR! A law firm who instructed me asked if I wanted to head up their family team, which was something I never considered. I adored working on ‘the other side’, and after 18 months was head-hunted to work at Pinney Talfourd. I’ve never looked back.
Sue: Being a solicitor wasn’t my first career choice – I actually got into law by mistake! I was a Customs Officer for 5 years, before quitting quite abruptly. I found an advert in the newspaper that night for a legal assistant – my interview consisted of me being thrust a pen and paper and being led into court! The woman who was interviewing me was in the middle of a domestic violence case and had to represent her client there and then. I was hooked from the outset.
Kayleigh: Graduating with a first in law; my mum had a stroke when I was 16, so having her there at my graduation when we initially thought she wouldn’t make it has certainly been my proudest moment to date.
Jackie: My children are of huge importance to me, and I am extremely proud to be able to say that I am now also a grandmother of 2!
Sharyn: As with Jackie, my children are my pride and joy.
Sue: I used to run a legal clinic for women doing life sentences on behalf of Justice for Women. I got involved with a free appeal alongside Vera Baird, of a woman who had suffered years of abuse at the hands of her husband. We got her murder conviction overturned and she was released from prison. In 2002, Vera and I walked down the steps of the high court with her as a free woman. That was my proudest moment.
Catherine: I think leadership is something that can be learned; it’s important to take responsibility for both your and your team’s decisions, and standing by them. To me, good leadership is also about admitting when you’re wrong and learning from your mistakes.
Sharyn: It’s important that leaders give credit where credit is due.
Jackie: Teamwork is one of the most significant things about working in a leadership role – but it is difficult to tease the line between being a manager, and being seen as a ‘friend’. I think this is one of the most challenging elements to my job.
Sue: For me, mentoring is looking out for your colleague’s mental health. In this profession, it can become quite a stifling environment and I believe it is vastly important to rally together to ensure that nobody falls foul of what can be an extremely difficult career.
Jackie: Possibly. I don’t feel that to be the case in my specific area of work because, in Finance, there’s no competition between colleagues or other law firms. You’re simply managing your own craft and practice. It’s neutral territory.
Kayleigh: I personally don’t feel intimidated, but then you have to be quite confident as a woman in order to get to where you want to be in life.
Catherine: No. I think there was a time when women did, when we didn’t have as many choices and there was a glass ceiling in the business world, but, for me, that’s never been there. I grew up in an environment where my own mother worked full-time as a Deputy Head Teacher and in fact earned more than my father who was a Headmaster, so I came from a background where irrepressible women were the norm.
Sue: I disagree – I believe that yes, many women still do feel intimidated within business. Referring back to the recent sexism case regarding high-heeled shoes in the workplace – there’s still that presumption that you have to look a certain way in some industries to climb the corporate ladder.
Sharyn: There are so many strong women in our world today that I don’t think it’s considered as such a stigma anymore to have women in positions of importance – look at our own Prime Minister, Theresa May. She is currently in a role that has previously been portrayed as a ‘male’ position.
Catherine: I don’t know if there are observations that are specific to law firms, but I do believe that working part-time is a difficulty that all women face, especially after making the decision to have children. It’s not about how much your company supports you, but rather the expectation from clients for you to be there for them 24/7. You can end up being on the back foot in all areas as you try to cram 100% of your workload into only 75% of your time. Hopefully, at Pinney Talfourd we manage part-time working a bit better than this!
Sue: I think that it’s harder for women to be accepted in commercial and more corporate departments within law firms; it does sometimes feel like family law is the ‘expected’ place of female solicitors.
Kayleigh: I actually have challenges from another side to the empowerment spectrum; as I’m quite young, I find that a few of my clients are taken aback when I join them for a meeting. Working in elderly client services, I do believe that there’s a certain image in client’s minds as to their ideal solicitor – older, and usually male. That said, once people realise that I know what I’m talking about, I can win their confidence and trust quite easily.
Sharyn: I think that men who lead in a predominately female environment tend to be more empathetic with their colleagues.
Sue: I do believe that some women act harder because that’s the view they’ve had to portray throughout their careers in order to get where they are today.
Jackie: I think we all have a certain way in which we lead, even if we’re not in a leadership role. It’s not segmented by sex in my opinion. I do however feel that women have more difficulty in leading teams with regards to the ‘blurred line’ of being a boss versus being viewed as a friend.
Kayleigh: I agree with Sue – there is a presumption that, as a woman, you have to be hard and aggressive in order to be taken seriously as a leader. I think it’s quite unfortunate that there’s that unwritten rule within business, certainly within law.
Catherine: Is there such a thing?! I have a very understanding husband, if anything. In all seriousness, I work very hard when I’m in the office; what I have is probably not what people would normally categorise as a work-life balance. I work pretty much every evening. When I get into the office in the morning, I get straight into my day – I don’t tend to have time for lunch or social engagements, but this allows me to have some form of an outside life with my family. I suppose that means that I’ve lost out on the social side of work, but that gives me my work/life balance.
Sue: I don’t; I work long hours. But I adore what I do, and wouldn’t have it any other way. My work is my life.
Kayleigh: Given the area that I specialise in, there are periods throughout the year in which my caseload is quite heavy, and I do work longer hours than perhaps I would like. That is recognised within our firm and something is being done about it; we operate in an environment where a work/life balance is actively strived towards.
Sharyn: Be a sponge and learn as much as you can from the people around you.
Kayleigh: Ultimately you can achieve anything that you set your mind to. You just have to work hard – it’s irrelevant as to whether you’re male or female. If you have a goal and strive towards it, then you should be able to achieve it.
Catherine: Find a job that you have utter passion about, and work bloody hard.
Sue: Never stop being scared – that was advice given to me a while ago that has stuck with me. The day that you stop being scared is the day that you stop caring. Every time I go into court, I remember that advice. If you’re not frightened, you’re not fully aware of the implications that your actions could have on the person you’re representing that day. You literally have their lives in your hands.
Jackie: Giving women the same rights as men to make their own decisions and fulfil their potential without gender discrimination.
Kayleigh: I think it’s quite sad that we need a concept of women empowerment. We should all view ourselves as equals across the board. I do believe that sometimes women put a glass ceiling in their own rooftops. That should never be the case.
Sharyn: Be responsible for what’s in your own boat at that point in time.
Sue: Personally I don’t think there is empowerment within women. Not whilst there are still child brides, slavery, and prostitution. Not when female genital mutilation is still rife, and when rape is still not being taken seriously enough. I don’t think there is empowerment when these things still occur in today’s society.
Catherine: Getting to the stage when you’re in control of your own destiny.
To find out more about the women leading the way in Pinney Talfourd and to contact any of them, please visit our staff profile pages.