New Zealand Law Society - United Nations Women's Empowerment Principles

United Nations Women's Empowerment Principles

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In 2013 the New Zealand Law Society publicly invited New Zealand law firms to show their commitment to gender equality by signing up to the United Nations Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEPs). Today, two years later, only five law firms from across the whole of New Zealand have confirmed their commitment to implementing gender equality by becoming signatories to the WEPs.

The WEPs were conceived in 2009, and are a collaboration between UN Women and the United Nations Global Compact. Launched on 9 March 2010 in celebration of International Women’s Day, the principles are designed to provide guidance to businesses on empowering women in the workplace, marketplace and in the community.

The principles

The principles point to best practice for businesses that are committed to advancing and securing gender equality – rather than being a prescriptive “minimum standard” that businesses must meet. A key attraction of the principles is the business case that they put forward for the advancement of gender equality, emphasising that “Equality means Business”. The principles are:

  1. Establish high-level corporate leadership for gender equality.
  2. Treat all women and men fairly at work – respect and support human rights and non-discrimination.
  3. Ensure the health, safety and well-being of all women and men workers.
  4. Promote education, training and professional development for women.
  5. Implement enterprise development, supply chain and marketing practices that empower women.
  6. Promote equality through community initiatives and advocacy.
  7. Measure and publicly report on progress to achieve gender equality.

The principles were launched in New Zealand by the Governor-General, Sir Jerry Mateparae, on 13 February 2012. Since then, the UN Women National Committee Aotearoa New Zealand, the NZ Federation of Business and Professional Women, and the Equal Employment Organisation at the Human Rights Commission have been working together to persuade New Zealand businesses to become signatories to the WEPs by showing companies that their businesses will be enhanced by employing more women at all levels and in all sectors of their organisation.

Five law firms are among the 41 New Zealand signatories whose CEOs have committed to implementing the principles in their businesses – Bell Gully, Buddle Findlay, Chapman Tripp, DLA Phillips Fox and Lane Neave.

White Camellia Awards

At 2014’s White Camellia Awards, the banking industry appeared to be leading the way on gender equality in the workplace. The White Camellia Awards are organised jointly by UN Women National Committee Aotearoa New Zealand, the Equal Employment Opportunity Trust, the Human Rights Commission and Business and Professional Women New Zealand. The Awards recognise organisations that have made the most progress in implementing the WEPs. BNZ was the 2014 supreme winner, with the other awards going to:

  • ASB and BNZ (Principle 1 Leadership Promotes Gender Equity);
  • Bell Gully (Principle 2 Equal Opportunity, Inclusion and Non-discrimination);
  • Farmers Trading Company (Principle 3 Health, Safety and Freedom from Violence);
  • Deloitte (Principle 4 Education and Training);
  • ASB Bank (Principle 5 Enterprise Development, Supply Chain and Marketing Practices); and
  • Westpac (Principle 6 Community Leadership and Engagement).

The seventh principle requires measuring and reporting women’s empowerment. By participating in the WEP survey that formed the basis for determining the award winners, all organisations that responded demonstrated their commitment to this principle.

Legal profession

In 2014 the New Zealand Law Society’s President, Chris Moore, stated that the Law Society had “made the subject of the retention and advancement of women lawyers a key focus for 2014.” As Mr Moore recognised, the failure to retain women employees, particularly at senior levels, is a serious issue for firms.

The legal profession has historically been male dominated. Each year since 1993, more women have been admitted to the bar in New Zealand than men; and since 1995 at least 60% of those admitted each year have been women. However:

  • currently only 46% of practising lawyers are female – the highest percentage since record keeping began in 1980;
  • 22% of partners in law firms around New Zealand are female;
  • 28% of the Judiciary are female; and
  • 18% of Queens Counsel are female (with only 8.5% of all appointments since 1907 being females). 

Economic cost

Economically, the loss of female staff is a significant cost for firms in terms of training, time and expertise.

Organisationally, a lack of gender diversity in senior echelons could result in a firm underperforming across the strategic, cultural and recruitment spheres, and ultimately cost the firm financially.

There has indeed been significant focus on this issue in 2014 – with the hugely successful NZLS CLE seminar “Women, Law and the Corner Office” being held in Wellington and Auckland in October 2014.

However, startling positional inequality remains. The “trickle up” effect, if it is indeed on its way, has yet to occur.

New Zealand Law Society data still depicts the current “typical” lawyer as male. If the number of female lawyers continues to grow at the current rate, the typical lawyer will not be a female until 2019 (LawTalk 836, 28 February 2014, page 15).

The 2012 Human Rights Commission’s New Zealand Census of Women’s Participation 2010 estimates that, at the rate of progress over the last 10 years, it will be another 35 years before “board room” equality (broader than simply the legal profession) is achieved.

The commitment to the WEPs by Bell Gully, Buddle Findlay, Chapman Tripp, DLA Phillips Fox and Lane Neave is to be applauded.

Not only have these firms recognised the importance of the business case for gender equality, they are tangibly committing to achieving the standards that the WEPs set, in front of their clients, their employees, the industry and the community as a whole. The Wellington Women in Law Committee encourages other firms to follow their lead, and publically commit to the WEPs.

To find out more about the WEPs, please contact the author, the Women in Law Committee (Wellington branch of the New Zealand Law Society), UN Women Aotearoa New Zealand, the Human Rights Commission and Business or Professional Women New Zealand. 

Anna Whaley completed an LLB and a BA majoring in History and Criminology at Victoria University, graduating in 2012. During her time at university Anna was a tutor for LAWS211 Contract Law for two years, and a student director of the Wellington Community Justice Project. She worked as a research counsel at the District Court in Palmerston North in 2013, and in 2014 began work in her current role as a solicitor in the corporate and finance team at Buddle Findlay. She is an active member of the Wellington Women in Law Committee and the Wellington Young Lawyers Committee.

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