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Leadership Insights: Female Leadership

In our series of articles, we discuss topical issues facing the legal industry all through the lens of diversity, equity and inclusion (D, E & I)

With Diversity+ celebrating its third birthday this month, we thought a piece from our founder, Naeema, sharing her insights on female leadership would be an ideal contribution.

The story so far…

Naeema formally set up Diversity+ on 11th May 2020, one day before her 50th birthday (although at the time that hadn’t even occurred to her). Statistically, the odds of the business being a success were stacked against her.

‘Only one in five businesses in Scotland are female-led, while start-ups founded by women received only 2% of overall investment capital in the last five years.’ 

Scottish Government, Supporting Women in Entrepreneurship, 20th February 2023

While eye-catching headlines and glossy images try to portray that women over 50 are the ‘new entrepreneurial superpower’ (Forbes), the reality is somewhat different.

In Scotland, 19.2% of younger female-led companies (Millennials and Generation Z) secure external capital compared to 14.2% for Generation X (that’s Naeema) and 12% for Baby Boomers.

What made Naeema take the plunge?

"There were several catalysts. Firstly, I was feeling deflated after the fast-paced world of the private legal sector. Being a partner in a large law firm came with its challenges of long hours, responsibilities, fee-earning targets and relentless business development. But it also came with the adrenaline high of achievement and success.

My career goals had been a big part of my life, formed part of my identity and there was an undeniable void, which sadly also made me question my worth. I had the energy and passion, and it needed an outlet.

Secondly, I was doing a lot of voluntary work through SEMLA (Scottish Ethnic Minorities Lawyers Association), but the growing need for expert EDI work meant I was having to refer ‘clients’ to organisations down south, who in turn would pivot back to me to better understand the Scottish legal sector and its needs.

That did not sit well with me. I felt a bit of a traitor, giving business and revenue away when we could keep it in Scotland.

Thirdly, we were in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic (the first lockdown to be precise). We were restricted in what we could do and the job market was very uncertain. This all meant I had additional time on my hands, so I decided to design a website, and from there, Diversity+ came into being.

Finally and most importantly, I wanted to do something with real purpose. Something that had the potential of making a difference, no matter how small; something that my daughter and granddaughter could look back on in years to come and be genuinely proud of. Every time I see my granddaughter, I think, ‘I want a different world experience for her’. An experience of true equality and inclusion, and the way I see it, that change starts with me. She is, without a doubt, my vision and drive every single day."

How would you describe the last 3 years of Diversity+?


The first year was pretty slow. Understandably, we were going through a pandemic, and there were times when I thought about applying for a job instead. I’d find something that broadly met my skill set and experience but then it would be gone – put on hold because of Covid. It was just as well because by year 2, things really started to pick up.

Year 2 was very much about refining what services we could offer and promoting them. And that was not easy to do. Thus far, that’s been the most challenging feature of a start-up: knowing and explaining to others what it is that you do and why they need your services. It sounds easy, but in practice, it’s hard. I also think that, in general, women find this difficult to do because we think of it as ‘bragging’.

We also set ourselves ambitious goals at the end of that year. These were:

  • To hold the first-of-its-kind multicultural legal festival in 2024. This project is now underway, but in its infancy.

  • To introduce an inclusive and independent network to better support and retain female talent in the profession. This was the inspiration behind 'Look Up and Beyond'.

  • To introduce the legal sector's ' equivalent of the ‘Wheel of Privilege', aimed at raising awareness of, understanding and measuring privilege. In collaboration with the Law Society of Scotland an interactive tool called ‘The Calculator of Privilege’ has been designed, and had its first formal use earlier this month when it was unveiled at the first EDI certification course for solicitors.

  • To research and introduce an initiative to support alternative career paths for law graduates who can not/do not wish to qualify as a solicitor. We have collaborate with Edinburgh Napier University for this project.

  • To introduce bespoke E-book learning tools specifically designed for individual industry or organisation needs. The E-books have covered topics such as International Women's Day, Ramadan, Inclusion, Islamaphobia and how to plan an EDI strategy.

How are we doing with our goals? 'We’ve started on all of them, some progressing better than others, but all up and running, which is a pretty good achievement, given how ambitious they were.

Year 3 has seen the awareness of our services grow, resulting in an increase in revenue beyond our expectations. We’ve increased our resources in terms of technology and talent. We have a growing team of virtual assistants from diverse backgrounds who add value to our work from many different perspectives.'

How would you describe yourself as a leader?

'I am a constant thinker, and my brain tends to work on overdrive 90% of the time. I thrive on fast decision-making and action. I’d describe myself as a hyper but compassionate leader. Often, I am 10 steps ahead in my thinking and explaining what I need from others can be challenging. I often ask colleagues, ‘Have I given you enough?’, or ‘Have I explained myself properly?’ Those around you need clarity, especially in a new business. That is something I could improve on. Having said that, I’d rather take a hit on a ‘bad’ decision than no decision at all. Thankfully, there haven’t been any bad decisions…at least not that I’m aware of!'

What are your top tips for female leaders?

'Believe in yourself, know that you are part of a bigger picture, that will take time to fully develop, and while on that journey of development, be kind to yourself.

A recent survey by Business Gateway (March 2024) found that imposter syndrome, lack of confidence in seeking funding and a lack of networking opportunities is holding female entrepreneurs back.

The UK is considered the business start-up capital of Europe, but not when it comes to women, despite a sharp increase in female self-employment since 2010, the number of women starting and scaling businesses remains much lower than that of men. The statistics speak for themselves:

  • Around 10% of women are self-employed compared with 16% of men. Women comprised 37% of all self-employed workers at the end of 2022, up from 27% in 2007. (ONS March 2023)

  • Only 1 in 3 UK entrepreneurs is female: a gender gap equivalent to 1.1 million missing businesses. (Rose Review of Female Entrepreneurship, HM Treasury 2019

  • UK Women’s businesses have a higher churn rate (ie. more start-ups and closures). But women are less likely to attribute closure to ‘business failure’ and more likely to cite ‘personal reasons’ – which peak at age 25-34.

  • Globally, women have perceptions of lower capabilities than men. In every region studied, women have, on average, a greater level of fear of failure than men.

Given this data, is there any wonder we are more prone to confidence crisis and imposter syndrome? If we are still the minority in the boardroom despite being an equal or main breadwinner in at least 45% of our homes and still doing double the number of hours for household chores in comparison to men, then these statistics will remain as they are, or as is now predicted (with many women experiencing burn out at an early stage), worsen.

In real terms, the household balance of earning power is levelling up, with women increasingly earning as much as men and the gender pay gap closing. But our societal and cultural attitudes to male/female roles are not keeping pace with the change—not in the home nor the workplace. My advice to female leaders? Be kind and patient with yourself and your business. The rest of the world is still catching up.

As for female business leaders from an ethnic minority background, we really are missing a trick. From my own recent experience, it’s not until I started my own business and met with more women like me that I realised just how innovative and creative we are. Sadly, the figures don't look good. Recent studies show ethnic minority female-led companies account for 22.9% which equates to 3.5% of all companies in Scotland – much lower than the UK average of 6.6%.

More importantly, my advice for all leaders, no matter their gender, is that there needs to be a complete cultural change. It starts with dismantling and rebuilding structures and ideologies that were created in a bygone era by men for men, for an age when much fewer women were in the workplaces, let alone leading them. It’s a huge challenge, and for anyone preparing to take this on in their workplace, get to know your people and their needs first and then start chipping away at the old and introduce the new – step by step.'

Is there a project or initiative you’re particularly proud of? How has it made a difference?

'I am incredibly proud of our ‘Look Up and Beyond’ project and how far it has come in such a short time. The project is designed to help retain and advance female talent in the legal industry and beyond. It’s intersectional, intergenerational and multi-industrial. It must be all these things if we want it to be successful. We must find fitting, long-term solutions because retaining and advancing female talent involves and benefits us all. Temporary sticking plasters will not do, and the generations to follow us will not thank us for them.

The project started with an article I wrote last year, and within a few months, we had 10 wonderful project founders and over 15 early talent advisors, all of whom are 100%+ committed to its purpose and aims. It’s receiving industry-wide support, which is very welcoming, because we can’t dismantle century-old structures and cultures without it. I’m confident that it will keep growing and strengthening, but I also hope one day, within my lifetime, it won’t be needed as we confidently say, ‘job done’.

What was your highlight of the year?

'Setting up the ‘Look Up and Beyond’ project was definitely a professional highlight, together with collaborating with the Law Society of Scotland to create what is probably the first of its kind EDI certification course for the legal profession. It involves 2 days of packed learning and sharing using materials and tools specifically designed with the Scottish legal sector in mind, covering topics such as the importance of EDI, emotional and cultural intelligence, EDI in employment law, retaining and recruiting diverse talent, workplace well being, and planning and creating an EDI strategy with mechanisms for reviewing and measuring results, amongst other essential discussions, with leading expertise in their fields. The first course took place only last week. It will be interesting to see how it is received and how it progresses in the future.

But a personal highlight would have to be taking my parents to have our 'portraits' taken for a ‘women in law’ project. The event took place in the Signet Library in Parliament Square, Edinburgh. They had never been before, and they had such a wonderful time, being greeted by many friends and colleagues with distinguished careers in law who really went out of their way to make them feel welcome. They described feeling like royalty. I had to have a giggle when they thought this was where I came to work every day and that I got the ‘red carpet treatment’ every time!

What has been a low moment?

'Being diagnosed with dyslexia. Now, hear me out before you judge me and tell me it’s my superpower. It may very well be why I am where I am today. Perhaps I learned to be more resilient because of it. But given how hard I fought to build a career in law and how I struggled at school and university, it was a difficult pill to swallow. All those years, I deprecated myself. On a good day, I’d think I was just less intelligent than those around me. On a bad day, I really believed I was stupid. It took me some time to process and start accepting the diagnosis. I’m still working on the accepting part and learning to unmask myself.

I have my daughter to thank for that. She always suspected and encouraged me to get an assessment. As a schoolteacher, she picked up on the signs. I think she also grew tired of me asking her to check my work for spelling errors. I recently read a wonderful piece by a partner in a law firm describing his experience of being diagnosed and that he now adds ‘I’m #MadeByDyslexia – expect big thinking & small typos’ to the end of his emails. That really resonated with me, and since reading the post, I’ve added it to my email signature. That was a big but positive step towards acceptance for me.'

What has been your biggest challenge with Diversity+?

'Without a doubt, setting and managing my own expectations. I spoke earlier about thriving on fast decision-making and action. This also results in having high expectations of myself.

Perhaps it’s my age and stage in life. I’ve lost patience, waiting for things to change. Perhaps it’s my upbringing where I was taught to work hard and get everything done today and not leave any tasks not done for tomorrow. Perhaps it’s my frustration and concern that we are losing momentum and credibility in the EDI space with the recent unprecedented backlash from its opponents. I want to stop that happening and just get things done.'

What excites you about the future?

The future generation of talent and how socially aware and accepting they are. Those just beginning their careers have a much better idea of what they want and what they won’t compromise on.

For example, they expect gender equity and diversity in the workplace. They expect inclusive practices. If it’s not there, they walk away. They demand a better life/work balance. When I started my traineeship, it was a crowded legal sector market, and most of those ahead of me had careers and jobs for life, e.g. they were either career fiscals or stayed with a firm for life.

That is not the case anymore. The tables have very much turned, and we are now being led by client and employee demands. I think many leaders saw the ‘snowflake’ attitude as a weakness and are having to rethink how they engage with their employees to win over their loyalty. The truth is - and we’ve known that this would be coming for years - we are working in multi-generational organisations and teams. It’s the leaders who need to adapt and change their mindsets to better lead the diverse, intergenerational teams of today'.

What do you hope the future holds for Diversity+?

My hope is that we continue to be driven by purpose and principle. I firmly believe that if you get your work ethos and culture right, the financial rewards will come. I think we really lost sight of that in the 1990’s/2000’s. We became unhealthily target and profit-driven that principles and purpose became secondary, which I feel has led to a deterioration in workplace wellbeing. We need to remember that we need moral, social, legal and financial aspects of a business to coexist in harmony for talent to flourish. It’s interesting to see large businesses having to rethink that ideology and find workarounds, to avoid complete U-turns.

What do you think the next few years of EDI in the workplace will look like?

I think it will be a time to consolidate, refresh and innovate. Those who bought into the advantages of EDI early on reaped the early benefits. But many have stagnated or failed to keep pace and are now losing momentum and talent.

EDI is a growing, fast-changing and demanding space. Innovation will be vital to keep pace not only with the changing needs of talent but the changing needs of business and clients.

We are looking at more creative ways to help our clients better understand their EDI needs and measure performance. I predict the days of ‘fluffy’, ‘wordy’, ‘lacking substance and accountability’ policy documents and strategy are numbered. We are looking at creating bespoke interactive tools for EDI programmes. They will be more inclusive, efficient, sustainable and better able to capture data to allow more regular reviews and assessments.

If there was one EDI mandatory change you could introduce to workplaces, what would it be?

I’m not convinced EDI work should be mandatory. The entire concept of EDI is built around understanding people better and meeting their needs to have a healthier, happier, and more productive workforce. When you introduce mandatory provisions, you get more standardised policies and workplaces meeting minimum requirements. I’d much prefer best practices and a drive for excellence on the premise that that is how you retain and advance your talent and improve your business.

If you or your firm are keen to partner with us to help break barriers for women in the legal sector and beyond, then please consider becoming a member of our Look Up and Beyond project, or reach out for a consultation call to discuss a bespoke project.




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