Case study

Think, Act, Report: Pinsent Masons

Overcoming the Barriers to Female Career Progression: Project Sky


A key diversity challenge and a critical business issue for most large law firms is the gender balance at senior levels of the firm. At Pinsent Masons, 20.3% of our Partners are female and 30% of our Board is female. Over the last two years the firm has established ‘Project Sky’, a wide ranging and comprehensive change programme, led by one of our senior female partners with the support of our Board. Project Sky supports a number of new work streams including parental support, career mapping, agile working, unconscious bias workshops and reciprocal mentoring.

Issue to be resolved

By 2012, it had become obvious that there was a real disparity between the number of females entering the firm through our graduate recruitment programme and the number of females represented within our partnership and senior management team.

As a firm, we are committed to maintaining a diverse and inclusive working environment where all of our people can achieve their potential. We believe this is key to our continued commercial success and enables us to offer a better work product to our clients. The under utilisation of such a significant amount of female talent is a serious business issue for the firm and has been deemed a priority by our Board.

Action taken

With support from our Board, in 2013 we established a new initiative to address this: Project Sky. The focus of Sky is to understand and remove the barriers to female career progression across the firm. It is led by Linda Jones, one of our senior female partners with representation from our Board and senior management team, our support functions and Diversity Network Groups. Project Sky is sponsored by our Senior Partner.

The first step was to commission an innovative piece of research which involved consultation with people across the firm. We worked with external consultants Female Breadwinners in order to do this, and the results were presented to our Board with a series of recommendations in May 2013. The Board approved the recommendations of the Report and as a result a number of new work steams have been established to improve female career progression, and the retention of female talent.

These are managed by Linda Jones, supported by a FT dedicated HR Manager, a core working group and the Sky Steering Group made up of senior stakeholders which meets bi-monthly. In summary:

  1. Unconscious Bias Training – The senior leadership team have all attended unconscious bias workshops. Now, working together with external specialist ENEI, we are providing our people with training to identify and address their own biases. This is currently a pilot in two of our practice groups with a plan to roll out to the wider business in time.
  2. Agile Working – We are promoting a focus on performance and delivery, not mere presenteeism. This means raising awareness of new ways of working and using technology to move away from traditional ‘office hours’ to a more flexible trust-based working relationship between employees and the Firm.
  3. Reciprocal Mentoring – This programme involves an explicit two-way arrangement. A senior leader in the business (male) will be mentored by a more junior female who has a different experience of the organisation, career progression and corporate culture. This will offer the senior leader the opportunity to experience the business from a different perspective. The female mentoring partner will receive the benefits of a traditional mentoring relationship.
  4. Advanced Diversity Training: Handling Challenging Conversations In 2014, we have introduced training for line managers to support them in dealing with complex issues linked to diversity.
  5. A new approach to parental support – This programme is focused on our working parents and the support needed before, during and after leave. We are working with a coaching company ‘Talking Talent’ in developing an on-line portal to support both employees and line managers in the challenges that face a working parent.
  6. Career-mapping
    This project is to develop a more flexible approach to career progression for our lawyers, while enabling us to flex our resources in order to meet the demands of a changing market. It is also about supporting honest and clear conversations so that our lawyers understand the different career pathways and can achieve a better work/life balance.
  7. New approach to the process of promotions – Group Heads now have a Comply or Explain rule in the promotions process in order to make sure that we are promoting a reflective view of the firm
  8. The firm has maintained its support for Female Futures, our female network group which creates opportunities for networking and soft skills development through access to events run by City Mothers and Fathers, Corporate Confidante etc
  9. Through our community investment and volunteering programme, we are engaging with female students at our partner schools. Our volunteer mentors are inspiring the next generation of female leaders, providing role models where these may be absent, and encouraging the most able students to consider the possibility of higher education.


It is still early days in terms of measuring the outcomes and impact of Sky and we know we have a long way to go. However, we are pleased by our progress to date:

  • Female representation on our Board is now 30%, and on our Remuneration and Partnership Committee we have now 33% female representation, which is a direct result of the work undertaken through Sky.
  • We have established a successful reciprocal mentoring programme engaging 15 of our senior management team.
  • We have established Aspire, a programme for the development of our potential future partners. We had a total of 18 candidates on the Aspire programme in February, 7 (39%) of these delegates were female.
  • For the first time, we have published a target for improving the gender balance within our partnership. Our aim is for this to be 30%, with a first milestone of 25 % by 1 May 2018.
  • Our Senior Partner has publicly pledged his support for Sky by signing up to the 30% Club which has a goal of 30% women on FTSE 100 boards by the end of 2015.

Next Steps

Project Sky is an evolving initiative with the long-term aim of not only improving the gender balance within our partnership and board, but supporting our wider objectives for a diverse and inclusive working environment where everyone has the opportunity to achieve their potential.

Over the next 6-12 months we will be focussing on a wider roll out of the pilot work-streams already in progress. This includes reciprocal mentoring, parental support, unconscious bias training, career mapping etc.

We will also continue to gather feedback and we have long term phase plans over the next couple of years to develop our programme internationally and within our support departments.

The Project Sky Steering Group includes representatives from our BME and LGBT Network Groups and we appreciate the need to consider the potential “double-glazed ceiling” in terms of career progression for BME and LGBT women within our business.

Published 4 November 2014