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From the Law Society

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Advancing women in the profession

During my time as President I have consistently advocated for the retention and advancement of women in the legal profession. This issue of LawTalk looks at women in the law.

You may perhaps be thinking “there are well over 50% of women lawyers in my firm” or “what’s that got to do with me?” Actually it’s got everything to do with you. This is not an issue that just affects women – it affects us all. As the United Nation’s HeForShe solidarity movement for gender equality puts it, this is about bringing “together one half of humanity in support of the other half of humanity, for the benefit of all”. Ignoring the issue may have economic consequences for your practice.

While all types of inequality have economic consequences, the new McKinsey Global Institute report: The power of parity: How advancing women’s equality can add $12 trillion to global growth, focuses on the economic implications of lack of parity between men and women. There are tangible benefits to ensuring that you are including more women lawyers in the management of firms and senior roles.

The statistics for women in law remain disheartening – at least 60% of New Zealand lawyers are female, but they continue to be severely under-represented in senior positions. Only 26% of partners (and directors) are women and women make up only 29% of the judiciary. Of the 282 Queen’s Counsel appointees only 27 have been female (9.6%). Since the first women were appointed Queen’s Counsel – Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias and Justice Lowell Goddard on 4 March 1988 – 169 QCs have been appointed, meaning women have comprised 16% of appointments since then.

Many have for years told me that “it’s just a matter of time” and more women in the senior roles will happen naturally over time. Since the early 1990s, the number of female law graduates has exceeded that of their male counterparts and we have not seen this carry through to the senior ranks. If we don’t do something about this, we will create personal disappointment and disillusionment for many of our women lawyers. They will not stay in the profession and we cannot afford to lose them.

So, the Board of the New Zealand Law Society has established a Women’s Advisory Panel to consider initiatives to look at how we can improve the advancement and retention rates of women in our profession. We will report later on the initiatives proposed.

As I write this I am entering my last six months of my final term as President. Over my time as President I have become more informed about what I can do to make a difference in this area, whether it be small changes or large. I don’t for a moment profess that I get it right. In fact, in spite of being conscious of the issue, when I question my own behaviour and practices I find I don’t always enjoy the answers. I am still making plenty of unconscious mistakes. I do, however, speak out when I see unconscious bias slipping into my own behaviour or that of others. I put it to you – are you really doing everything you can to retain and advance women lawyers in the legal profession?

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