This is a very meritocratic environment,” says Kathy Honeywood, a corporate partner at Clifford Chance. “I have never come across any direct discrimination because I’m a woman,” reports Claire Smith at The Times.
Nevertheless, in a notoriously male-dominated sector, Honeywood often finds herself the only woman around the meeting table. Fifty-one per cent of solicitors at the world’s biggest law firm are women, but at partner level that figure drops to 18 per cent — and Honeywood wants to do something about it. “Being the only woman is quite tough,” she says. “It takes a lot of confidence to find your voice and speak up. You need to develop respect and a natural confidence.”
The quietly assertive 43-year-old has worked hard to get where she is. Born and brought up in Brighton, the second of three sisters, her father was a civil engineer and her mother a nurse. There were no lawyers in the family. But in spite of the lack of role models, she wasn’t put off. “I have always been very determined,” she says. “In a way I suppose because there weren’t that many women in senior positions I have always wanted to change that. I still strive to make Clifford Chance a place where there are more senior women.”
Honeywood qualified at Clifford Chance in 1989 and made partner in 1998. Today she is one of the firm’s top performers. She recently advised Chinalco, the Chinese state aluminium giant, on its acquisition of a 12 per cent stake in Rio Tinto for $14 billion (£7 billion). And when Stuart Popham, the senior partner, wanted to set up a network to help more women into the firm’s upper tier, he turned to Honeywood to run it with litigation partner Elizabeth Morony.
The launch was held at the beginning of March, on the 30th floor of the firm’s Canary Wharf headquarters. Two hundred women were in attendance and only two men: Popham and Jeremy Sandelson, the London managing partner. “It’s the first time I’ve ever seen Jeremy nervous,” Honeywood says.
Amid the free-flowing champagne, Dr Glenda Stone of Aurora, one of Europe’s biggest professional women’s groups, spoke of how such networks could help win new business and strengthen client relationships, in addition to improving employee retention and engagement.
Law firms to date are some way behind other professions at encouraging diversity. The accounting firms, for one, have had women’s networks for years. But Honeywood is determined to close that gap. “I would like us to try to set an example for the whole legal community,” she says.
“Men have one fundamental advantage over us,” she adds. “There are simply more of them. We do lack critical mass and I really think we can support women by encouraging networking both internally and externally.”
The network’s remit does not extend to issues such as flexible working and maternity. Honeywood, who does not have children herself, says parenting is a separate issue that is ably dealt with elsewhere: “This is different. This is about personal and professional success. I’m not a working mother but I know what challenges I have faced in my career and have faced daily.”
Honeywell read law at University College London and knew as a student she wanted to be a corporate lawyer. “I loved the intellectual challenge,” she recalls. “Even then company law was by far my favourite subject. Being a corporate lawyer provides both an intellectual challenge and an opportunity to shape business decisions.”