Sometime in a few months, New Zealand’s legal profession will have more women than men. In mid-March, there were just 205 more men in our 12,800-member profession.
We will duly mark what is really an interesting milestone. It has been coming since 1993 when the number of women being admitted to the bar passed the number of men for the first time. The real milestone for celebration will be when there is equality in leadership of the profession. This is still some distance away. It will come when men and women are equally represented in the partnerships, the directorships, among the Queen’s Counsel, and in in-house leadership.
There is an interesting letter in this issue of LawTalk, from Lady Deborah Chambers QC (page 21). Lady Deborah finds it extraordinary that there is not an equal gender balance of women making partner in our largest law firms. The data which is provided in response notes that, while women make up over 48% of all law firm lawyers, they are just 28% of partners and directors. And they are just 18% of Queen’s Counsel.
There is evidence of change, however. Over the past four years the number of women who are partners or directors has grown by 31% while the number of men has dropped by 2%. Things are improving, but they are not improving quickly enough. The New Zealand Law Society has embarked on a plan for moving faster towards equality.
One strand of this is to roll out and promote training on unconscious bias in the workplace. Subtle and unconscious forms of discrimination are far more prevalent than overt forms. There is a lot of research which has shown people can be consciously committed to egalitarianism and deliberately work to behave without prejudice, yet still possess hidden preferences and stereotypes.
The New Zealand Law Society is actively encouraging all lawyers to examine their unconscious biases. Two weeks ago we provided a free 90-minute training session for lawyers on this. It was very pleasing that over 1,000 lawyers participated. We have decided to require all lawyers who want to be able to qualify to practise on their own to complete the training – and this is needed to become law firm partners or directors. We are also investigating how it can be embedded in law degrees.
Alongside the unconscious bias training and resources, the Law Society is developing a range of practical initiatives to address the disproportionate number of women in leadership positions. You will hear more about these.
We are part of a great profession. It is a profession whose leaders should attain their position through ability and aptitude for the role, not because they are male or female.
Kathryn Beck, President, New Zealand Law Society.