New Zealand Law Society - Raising the Bar: Women in Law and business

Raising the Bar: Women in Law and business

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Reviewed by Rachael Zame

Gender equality continues to be a hot topic around the world and across all professions, even making its way into an Oscars acceptance speech this year.

The statistics for women in law are disheartening – as at February 2015, 47% of New Zealand lawyers are female, but they continue to be severely under-represented in senior positions – only 22% of partners in large firms and 24% in small firms are women. Women make up only 29% of the judiciary and 18% of Queen’s Counsel.

This book addresses the very pertinent question: why is New Zealand, a country with a history of placing us at the forefront of women’s suffrage, now dragging its heels? How have we managed to proceed from our trail-blazing days of the “great quartet” of a female Governor-General, Prime Minister, Chief Justice and Attorney-General to a state of near stagnation?

The book breaks down international research to explain the societal benefits of gender diversity, and, in particular, how diversity within a business increases profit and productivity. It includes survey responses and original data from more than 300 practising lawyers as to their personal experiences and recommendations for change. But far from being doom and gloom, it hopes to become a tool for legal, business and HR professionals by providing practical tools for managing change and moving towards gender equity.

Does it meet this goal? Yes, in an easy to read format with a helpful section on “tools for change”. Would I recommend buying it? Yes, I would. Did I enjoy reading it? Yes, a fascinating and timely read. Could I find the information I wanted in the index/contents? Yes, a well laid-out book – lots of headings and sub-headings and helpful index.

The book is helpfully divided into six parts:

  • What is the problem? Outlines the myriad of ways New Zealand women are falling behind men across the board.
  • Why does it matter? Explains in simple language how gender diversity improves business performance.
  • How did we get where we are? Legislative and social advances in the last 20 years and other initiatives run within firms.
  • What do the lawyers say? Results of a survey of more than 300 practitioners and considers a survey of over 4,000 Australian lawyers.
  • What do the experts say? Examines the literature and explains some of the issues holding New Zealand back, while looking at some New Zealand companies leading the way.
  • Tools for change. A practical guide to managing change, setting out tangible tools for change including policy ideas and templates and tools for measuring progress.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is the results from the survey undertaken in 2012. A similar comprehensive survey of female lawyers was undertaken back in 1992 and one of the intentions of the 2012 survey was to gain some insight into the degree of progress in the last 20 years.

Surprisingly, it appears that many of the same issues still exist today. This chapter is helpfully divided into sub-paragraphs highlighting issues such as balancing work and childcare responsibilities, attitudes and discrimination, and career progression and opportunity. The results are compared with, and strikingly similar to, a 2013 Australian study of more than 4,000 lawyers, which is also detailed in this chapter. Finally, the chapter details “what lawyers want” – responses consistently centred on flexible working hours, career support and development, feedback and recognition of non-chargeable hours and additional leave.

Helpfully for HR professionals and management the final chapter of the book outlines “tools for change”. This is intended to be a practical guide for businesses and outlines a series of practical steps to enable companies to undertake an audit of their current situation and bring about change. It also provides helpful real-life examples of diversity policies from three large companies.

This is a well-structured and easy to read book and would be an invaluable tool for companies wishing to increase diversity within their organisations.

Raising The Bar: Women in Law and Business, Thomson Reuters New Zealand Ltd, December 2014, 978-0-864728-93-7, 256 pages, paperback, $42 (GST and p&h excluded).

Rachael Zame is an associate at Cooney Lees Morgan, Tauranga, providing specialist advice in local government, resource management and civil litigation. She works part-time alongside raising two small children.

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