New Zealand Law Society - Women struggling to be recognised in law

Women struggling to be recognised in law

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Women are still struggling to achieve a perhaps mythical “work/life balance” and be recognised in law, Canterbury University Law Dean, Professor Ursula Cheer, told the Canterbury Women’s Legal Association (CWLA) annual meeting on 2 May.

“Although things are improving slowly, numbers of female partners are too low, numbers of female judges are even lower, and even numbers of senior female academics are pretty dismal.

“To achieve in the profession, it seems you still generally have to behave pretty much like defacto men,” said Professor Cheer, who was guest speaker at the annual meeting.

“One marked change is that two thirds of law graduates are now women. A further change is that there is more interest now, among our female students, in feminist issues and in forming associations of women to support each other.


“When I started lecturing in 1996, I was surprised at the hostility such initiatives faced from the student body, both from female as well as male students. When I came of age in the 1970s and 80s, we were riding the second wave of feminism. By the time I started teaching law, we were in the middle of neo-feminism – a ‘girls can do anything so why do they need special treatment?’ backlash.

“Even until quite recently, anyone identifying as feminist or trying to make feminist arguments risked a sometimes toxic negative reaction, especially in social media. This is disturbing. But recently I was approached by a senior female law student wanting to talk about setting up a female student group of some kind. And the Law Students’ Society is now regularly arranging a legal women’s breakfast, and actively seeking names from me of female practitioners who can come and speak about working in the law.

“There is a bit of a stereotype building up here though. I have observed that legal working mothers – those ‘work/life jugglers’, are seen as very desirable speakers, and so I have pointed out that legal working women without children have a perspective to offer too,” Professor Cheer said.

“Another marked change is that I am the first woman Law Dean of Canterbury Law School in its 142 year history. I have given many interviews about that since the start of the year, most focusing on the fact that I am a woman. It is great to be interviewed about apparent ‘milestones’ such as this, but I have pointed out that when media know they don’t have to ask me about my gender, then we will be where we need to be.”

When she started work as an academic in the 1990s, women legal academics at the university were in a much greater minority, Professor Cheer said.

“In the last year, for a short time, we actually had equal numbers of male and female professors at the Law School. Considering that in 2011 we had no female professors, that is an amazing change!

“Our first female law professor was Liz Toomey, followed by me a year later, and then Karen Scott. However, a year or so ago, we appointed a further male professor, Professor Robin Palmer, to lead our new clinical legal programme and that tipped the balance again. But who knows what could happen in the future?

More women

“We continue to interview to fill vacant positions and, when we interview for new staff now, we find there tend to be more excellent female candidates than male and we usually shortlist more women than men.

“That is not deliberate. In fact, we agonise about it a bit because we worry that we will be seen as a ‘feminist’ law school and men will cease to apply, both as staff and students.

“We should not have to worry about that, but there is evidence that at a certain tipping point, when a profession begins to be seen as a female profession, there can be male flight and salaries and employment benefits in that profession decline.

“We have not reached that point in academia and I hope we never do. And we have not reached it in the Law School, which remains resolutely a school for all people who want to excel in law. We need diversity at law school, where students share strengths and weaknesses and learn from these, and also learn to socialise and respect each other. These are essential skills for adult life and for future employment.

“Although women law graduates have outnumbered men for some time … significant male flight does not appear to have happened yet in the practice of law either.

“I believe this is because of female flight and because men still dominate at the higher end – in partnerships and in status within firms.

“The profession is based on a pyramid structure with fewer and fewer men at the top supported by young (cheaper) women below. So I ask, what will happen when those men retire at last? And why don’t women stay practising law?

What a waste

“Anecdotally we know female flight from the profession occurs at about 18 months after starting first appointment. What a waste!

“I am in a position to do something about this now. So I make it a point to ask any male practitioners who visit me representing the firms what that firm is doing to retain women.

Focus on wellness

“Another change I have noticed is the greatly increased attention paid to wellness in the workplace – and this applies not only to the practice of law. But law seems to be worse than other careers.

“My impression from talking to our female graduates who leave the profession is that perhaps women are less prepared to put up with stressful and unfulfilling work conditions, in spite of the huge attractions of working in the law.

“The way law is practised now, with very long hours of work, 24-hour availability, and high fee generation expectations, is too destructive of health and home life.

“When I was a student and when I first practised in the 1980s, no one gave a thought to whether law was a stressful profession and how practising law impacted on lawyers. Now journals, newsletters and the Law Society publications are full of agonising articles and lists of top tips on how to survive all the stresses and strains of being a lawyer.

“I hope all the ink spilt on the issue does lead to change.

“It is good that more attention is being paid to this, but change might take a bit more than providing counselling, access to gym membership, and tick box audit systems. Such things do not make the system change, they just make working in the system more survivable.

Longitudinal study

“Our longitudinal study being carried out at Canterbury following a cohort of Canterbury, Auckland and Waikato students who began their legal studies in 2014 through their degrees and into their careers will, it is hoped, give us empirical evidence which we will use to adapt our teaching to produce graduates who are employable and resilient, including our female graduates.

“And the study we are carrying out with the CWLA into part-time and flexible working practices in the Canterbury legal profession will also give us useful information about what can be done better or differently in the workplace.

“We are writing up the results currently, but I have to tell you that to me, one of the most significant results is that very few male practitioners responded to the survey.

“This appears to suggest that the matter of part-time and flexi-time work is still regarded by men as a women’s issue. If so, that has to change.

“So much more work needs to be done within firms to make legal work adapt to those who want to practise in it, rather than the other way around. This will benefit both women and men. Because I would like to see the practice of law develop into a career that provides satisfaction, reward, status, dignity and good health to people, not just only to men, or only to women.

“I wonder what that will look like? I challenge others to think about what that might look like.

“In the meantime, an organisation such as the CWLA is invaluable because it allows women to network, support each other, share problems and experiences, discuss sensitive issues such as remuneration scales and performance criteria, support research and work out strategies for overcoming obstacles.

“It also just gives you a chance to hang out with each other and have a good time – you need to realise you are not alone. The important thing is to get fulfilment, enjoyment and pride from our work and our home lives. It is also important to go on supporting each other as you do in the CWLA. It is a pleasure to be part of this group and I wish you all well for the future,” Professor Cheer said.

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