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East Midlands Chamber News

East Midlands enterprising women: Sarah Walker-Smith

From legal and finance to logistics and housing, a wide range of sectors in the East Midlands are blessed with an even more diverse set of female talent in senior positions. To celebrate International Women's Day 2021 on 8 March, East Midlands Chamber profiles the inspiring stories behind 10 of the region's top enterprising women throughout the week.

Breaking the glass ceiling is a concept often associated with the challenges women face in progressing beyond middle-management roles within professions.

As someone working in the legal industry with big ambitions but no law degree or LPC, Sarah Walker-Smith had identified another barrier.

“I used to describe it as being in a glass box,” she reflects on her earlier career. “If you’re a woman in a law firm and not a lawyer, it felt like there was a glass wall as well as the glass ceiling.”

After working at Boots, PwC and Deloitte as an accountant, Sarah had joined Nottingham-headquartered law firm Browne Jacobson in 2004 as director of business development and marketing.

She was promoted to chief operating officer in 2012, before fully breaking out of her glass box in 2019 when she joined Shakespeare Martineau as the first female, non-lawyer chief executive in a top 50 law firm.

Her recruitment signalled how the national firm – which has offices in Leicester and Nottingham, where Sarah is based – was already leading a cultural shift, but it has been fast-tracked since her arrival.

The 10-person board includes seven women while its 111 members – an alternative partnership structure allowing non-lawyers to take equity and decision-making stakes – is 31% female.

Not that Sarah has these numbers at the top of her head.

“I don’t really count because I don’t think this matters,” she says. “This is the problem – we’ve got to stop defining people in those boxes and just bring the best people for the job into the job, because professional qualifications, gender, ethnicity and sexuality don’t define people.”

Why Sarah Walker-Smith believes equality issues should sit with the board

This is why Sarah, a Nottingham Trent University governor, is adamant that equality issues are “owned” by the board, rather than by equality committees for gender, ethnicity and sexuality.

"Utterly ridiculous" is her response to the idea that non-lawyers can't sit in the most senior positions in law firms – “there’s something like 100,000 lawyers in the UK against a population of 67 million, so why would you limit your talent pool so much?” – while she believes there’s still much to resolve when it comes to why so few women tend to reach partnership, with Solicitors Regulation Authority data from 2017 showing women made up 59% of non-partner solicitors compared to just 33% of partners.

Part of the shift towards a “21st century mindset” may be accelerated by the pandemic, as relaxing attitudes towards remote working could have a domino effect on other aspects of professional workplaces.

Sarah, who professes to “hate” the idea of needing to celebrate women in business as a separate entity while acknowledging its importance on the road to achieving true equality, believes this takes form in both directions.

“For example, our wealth team, which looks after family law and private capital, is predominantly female so we’ve got to get more men into this area,” she adds.

“It also applies to part-time working, which should be accessible to men as well as women. But we need to reset the agenda and start looking at outputs, not inputs, in terms of how people contribute to a business because that will help level up the playing field.”