New Zealand Law Society - Scarcity of women in senior roles in large Auckland law firms

Scarcity of women in senior roles in large Auckland law firms

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Almost all of the women (95%) who responded to a recent survey endorsed the proposition that there was a trend for women to leave law firms or the profession. In contrast, 30% of the men who responded queried or disagreed with this proposition.

The research project into the scarcity of women at the senior levels in Auckland’s large law firms was commissioned by the Auckland Women Lawyers’ Association. It was launched on 27 February.

Entitled Women’s Career Progression in Auckland Law Firms: Views from the top, views from below, the study was conducted by the Gender & Diversity Research Group at AUT University.

It involved surveys and interviews with staff, partners and CEOs of Auckland’s 11 biggest law firms. The support of the Large Law Firm Group of the New Zealand Law Society was invaluable in conducting this research.

There have been more female graduates entering law firms than male graduates since 1993. There was, however, a noticeable lack of women in partnership roles. In 2012 women made up 19% of partners at large firms on average and no large law firm had achieved gender parity at partnership level. Overall, females in New Zealand are less likely to make partner compared to similar sized firms in Australia and the United States. The research project sought to understand the reasons or perceived reasons for this ongoing disparity, through the eyes of those directly affected.

Both men and women participated in the research project. There were striking differences between female and male survey responses from those that were not yet partners. Proportionately, twice as many men as women perceived moderate levels of promotion opportunities in their current firm.

Common themes emerged as to why women were leaving the large law firms in disproportionate numbers. These included burnout, a male-dominated environment, the structure of work and partnership, the masculine workplace culture and women’s responsibilities for children, pressures around “winning” work and a desire for a more balanced life.

A key issue of concern for women was “if and when” to have children, it being uniformly accepted that part-time work effectively stalled career progression. It was generally agreed that law is an incredibly demanding profession, and while most women took great pride in being part of that, those demands (and their incompatibility with having a family) were seen as a key contributing factor to women leaving.

The research found that currently there is no ground-swell of people agitating for change in the profession to allow for greater gender parity at partner levels, although there were high levels of frustration expressed with the structure for progression.

Participants recognised the need for change. However advocating for change within the organisation was perceived as carrying risks. It was clear from the survey that law firms needed to take some responsibility for increasing the number of women in senior roles. Some of the firms have recognised the need for change by adopting varied initiatives directed at developing women into senior roles. It was also evident that continued, meaningful action is needed before real change can be accomplished.

The research paper is available online at For more information, contact the President of AWLA, Angela Hansen on

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