Peter Byrne is founder and CEO of ESPHR – an employment law firm and HR consulting business specialising in employee relations.
Prior to founding ESPHR in 2003, the forward-thinking company owner ran an HR resource management organisation for three years and held senior marketing and product development positions within the financial services sectors for nearly two decades. Peter later took a leap of faith in his vision to set up the UK’s first employment law ‘Alternative Business Structure’ firm – and has been at the forefront of its major growth ever since.
Why do you support the HeForShe campaign?
I’ve always worked with women – ever since my first role in customer services for a financial services company as a teenager. It was a primarily-female office so it hasn’t ever been ‘out of the ordinary’ personally. At ESP, our law division is all-women – however, that’s not for any reason other than they were, and are, by far the most-qualified people for the job. You can look at ESPHR as being a little different to ‘traditional’ law firms for many reasons – not least because two out of its three directors are female. But, this is the ‘norm’ for us.
Although I’m sad to see the topic of ‘women in the workplace’ still having to be made a point of – rather than being a given – these kinds of campaigns are great for empowering talented employees.
Why do you think it’s important for men to support gender equality in the workplace?
I find it abhorrent that societally, many are still not there yet with gender equality – how is that even possible in this day and age where flexible working and inclusion is a prerequisite of success? There are people who need to get up-to-speed with a modern-day workforce, see people for the skills they possess, and who they are. Nobody should ever be made to feel they are not good enough for the job because of their gender – that doesn’t make sense to me.
I’m privileged to work alongside – and truly learn from – many inspiring women. They’ve made ESPHR what it is today – a forward-thinking company that has grown exponentially, thanks to hard-working parents and flexible employees who all contribute to the vibrancy of our organisation.
How welcome are men in the gender equality conversation currently?
Everyone should feel able to debate topical issues, as long as it’s done with solutions in mind – not so they can say they’ve hit diversity quotas, and check it off a list. I would hate to be in a position where we had to introduce a corporate inclusion programme – because, bluntly, it should already be in place, without question. The formality of creating ‘a project’ out of something that is so basically human leaves me cold, to be honest. There seems an artificiality about it from the off and a ‘nod’ in the direction of political correctness and marketing positioning, rather than what this debate is really all about.
I want to create an organisation that truly empowers all staff – simply because they are fantastic at their jobs.
Do you think groups/networks that include the words “women in…” or “females in…” make men feel like gender equality isn’t really their problem or something they need help with?
Conversations need to happen across the board to activate meaningful change. It’s important that both women and men have their say in how they would like things to develop, so that any issue around gender inequality is completely eradicated. Everyone has a role to play in generating balanced views and valuable opinions. We need to come together and make sure such old fashioned, dismissive views are left behind once and for all.
I don’t like men and women labels either because it already puts people into two opposing camps, rather than just being one team talking openly and solving existing issues together.
What can businesses do to encourage more men to feel welcome enough to get involved in the gender debate?
I don’t think they should need to be invited to the debate – they should be actively involved already, or search somewhere else for a role. There definitely needs to be greater efforts put into hiring more women at senior level, and actively promote those who are the most qualified. It’s now time for all organisations to ‘walk the talk’, get involved, and show real signs of change so that we can keep moving forward.
Men shouldn’t feel any reticence to get involved – it should happen naturally. They’re not wallflowers – they’re often significantly experienced, intelligent and very well-paid leaders in their individual fields of expertise. And they need to be driving the change, not sitting back asking to be ‘welcomed’ in.
Do you currently mentor any women or have you in the past?
All my inspirational leaders growing up in business have been women, and I’ve learnt something from each and every one of them. My daughter, Kerry, is a marketing executive for ESP and I’m part of a three-person directorship alongside highly-experienced lawyers, Sarah Dillon and Nina Robinson. A total of 90 per cent of my staff are women too and I can’t stress enough that they’ve all been the best candidates for their roles. I’m lucky to be part of an incredibly-talented workforce.
Have you noticed any difference in mentoring women – for example, are women less likely to put themselves forward for jobs that are out of their comfort zones or are women less likely to identify senior roles that they would be suited for?
I haven’t experienced this in my line of business. If there was somebody right for a promotion but didn’t want to go for it because of their gender – that would genuinely disappoint me. And, if that did happen, then I’m clearly not the right leader for them and we’re not the right organisation. It would hurt me deeply as I’d always encourage people to go for roles they were capable of doing. It’s a collaborative effort to empower staff to believe they can progress, and be a huge part of a firm’s overall growth.