New Zealand Law Society - Women in the Law: 18 months on

Women in the Law: 18 months on

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Last year was the 120th anniversary of Ethel Benjamin’s graduation into the legal profession. To mark the occasion, LawTalk spoke to six working lawyers all holding different positions on top of their jobs as lawyers in an article entitled “Changes I want to see for women in law in 2017: Six viewpoints 120 years on” (LawTalk 903, February 2017).

This year the scale of men to women lawyers in New Zealand tipped and there are now more women practising as lawyers than men. With that in mind, LawTalk thought it was time to revisit that article and talk to those who contributed. Five of the contributors provided us with an update.

These comments were collected over several months, both before and after the revelations about sexual harassment in the legal profession surfaced in mid-February.

Chris Moore, Chair of New Zealand Law Society Women’s Advisory Panel

Last year former Law Society President and current Chair of the Women’s Advisory Panel, Chris Moore, commented on the information which had been gathered and analysed by the Law Society which enabled it to provide a snapshot of the profession in 2017. He focused on communication, unconscious bias training and the introduction of a diversity and inclusion charter.

Chris Moore
Chris Moore

“That snapshot confirmed that the progression of women to leadership positions in the law still did not fairly reflect the number of women entering the profession,” says Mr Moore.

“In 2018, over 50% of practising lawyers are women. One might be tempted to think that the sheer weight of numbers might have been a signal for faster progression of these leadership statistics.”

Mr Moore says that while progress is still slow, it has been made.

“Free unconscious bias training seminars delivered by the Law Society have been attended by thousands and, I believe there is a much greater understanding and awareness of this issue.

“The Law Society is motivated to build on this growing awareness and to address issues recently raised in the media.”

This year the Law Society has taken further steps to pave the way to gender equality and to increase the numbers of women in leadership positions.

Mr Moore hopes the launch of the Gender Equality Charter in April will have a positive impact on both men and women practising law by creating a substantive and recognised benchmark against which progress on aspirational goals can be measured.

“The Women’s Advisory Panel carefully considered the role of the Charter in addressing issues such as bullying and harassment. In particular, we considered whether the Charter should contain an explicit commitment to ensure a safe working environment.

“The Panel considered that these serious and important issues justified a separate workstream. We didn’t think that it was appropriate to ask lawyers to voluntarily commit to ensure within two years that their workplaces were safe – this is a mandatory requirement. All employees should have a safe working environment free from bullying and harassment.

“At its heart, the charter is about driving culture change in the legal profession. It is a forward-looking tool that focuses on the positive steps that can be taken to retain and advance women lawyers.

“In essence, it comes down to fairness; the Charter is about creating a level playing field for all genders and matters of fairness and equity are founding stones of this profession. These values and principles should be fiercely guarded.”

Angela Stafford, retired President of Auckland Women Lawyers’ Association

Ms Stafford addressed issues touching on the lack of support from men within the profession, improvements in reporting, and scrutiny of pay equity and the promotion of equitable briefing within the profession. Her thoughts more than a year later are mixed amidst the current climate of the legal profession.

Angela Stafford
Angela Stafford

“The recent coverage about harassment in our profession is embarrassing but the fact it is being discussed more openly is positive,” she says.

“I applaud those who came forward and I hope that their courage inspires the leaders in our profession to make positive changes.

“Most lawyers do not harass their colleagues but it is incumbent on all of us to act if we see, or hear about, something untoward.

“I believe improvements are being made on reporting and scrutiny around pay equity. Some of the large firms seem to be making good strides in this area.

“Despite this, the stories I hear still reflect a profession where a female lawyer should expect that a less qualified male colleague will often be promoted more often and paid better than she is. As Eleanor Roosevelt said: ‘If you think life is fair – then you’ve been seriously misinformed’.”

Instead of dwelling on fairness, Ms Stafford says the legal profession needs to provide women lawyers with skills and support so that they can advocate for themselves as well as they do for their clients.

“The Gender Equitable Engagement and Instruction Policy that is being jointly promoted and managed by the Law Society and the New Zealand Bar Association is a positive development. The policy has set an achievable threshold and I understand it will be supported by specific research to monitor actual progress.”

Kathryn Beck, President, New Zealand Law Society

In the February 2017 LawTalk Law Society President Kathryn Beck explained that she would like to see the profession truly begin to understand that diversity is a good thing.

Kathryn Beck
Kathryn Beck

Ms Beck said the three things she wanted to see achieved in 2017 were a gender lens and pay audits in all firms, promotion and mainstreaming of flexible working and equitable briefing and instructing.

“In 2017 we developed a Gender Equality Charter for the legal profession that includes commitments in all of these areas,” says Ms Beck.

“The Charter was launched on 12 April 2018 at Parliament and was an important step for the profession. We consulted widely on the Charter and were encouraged by the strong support for this initiative.”

Alongside the Charter, the Law Society is providing guidance, tools and resources to assist legal workplaces in driving change.

“Consistent with this on 5 December 2017 the Gender Equitable Engagement and Instruction Policy was launched,” she says.

“The framework is now in place to deliver meaningful and lasting improvements in gender equality in the legal profession.

“The next challenge for us all is turning commitment into action and focusing not just on gender equality but also diversity and, importantly, inclusion. We need to improve the culture of the profession so that we attract the best talent and truly represent the society we serve. It isn’t enough to recruit and advance women lawyers. They also need to feel welcome, safe and free to be themselves.

“As Verna Myers [a diversity and inclusion consultant in the US] once said: ‘Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance’.”

Kimberly Jarvis, now former Convenor of Otago Women Lawyers’ Society (OWLS)

In 2017, Kimberly Jarvis commented in her capacity as the Convenor of OWLS. The three things Ms Jarvis wanted to see happen in 2017 to ensure more women in leadership roles were unconscious bias training, more support for women to put themselves forward for positions of power, and mentoring and sponsorship programmes.

Kimberly Jarvis
Kimberly Jarvis

“Starting with the positives, I think that, in the last year, there has been more of a focus on unconscious bias within the profession,” says Ms Jarvis.

“For example, the New Zealand Law Society provided a free webinar on the topic, which seems to have helped to raise the profile of that issue within the profession.

“In Dunedin, OWLS has continued to run professional development events designed to help promote women into leadership roles, including an excellent workshop on getting into directorships.”

The association also provides a mentoring system, the Wise OWLS. Ms Jarvis says she is aware of other organisations doing similar things in other areas.

“As I said last time, this is an issue which will inherently take a long time to rectify. Obviously, in recent months there has been a lot of media attention focused on the negative experiences of women in the profession. I am hopeful that this publicity will encourage the profession to reflect upon its treatment of women and that meaningful change will be brought about by it.

“The Criminal Bar Association survey and Zoë Lawton’s anonymous #MeToo blog will be great to illuminate the extent of the problem. Let’s hope that by this time next year we will be well on the way to the solution.”

Wendy Aldred, now former Wellington Women Lawyers’ Association (WWLA) Convenor and current member of the WWLA Committee.

Wendy Aldred commented in her capacity as WWLA Convenor and hoped that in 2017 she would see the Law Society work with firms to implement practical steps in order to ensure job progression of women lawyers; to introduce reporting on this progression and to see law firms commit to ensuring equal pay and extension of the New Zealand Bar Association’s equal briefing policy beyond Crown Law to other organisations.

Wendy Aldred
Wendy Aldred

“I am pleased that the Law Society has published its Gender Equality Charter for the profession which includes reporting requirements for firms that sign up and addresses pay equity issues. However, I was disappointed that the Gender Equality Charter omitted to address the issue of sexual harassment, despite requests by WWLA that it do so.”

Ms Aldred says the need for freedom from sexual harassment must be central to any initiative promoting equality for women in the profession. “If women cannot feel safe at work, how can they progress?”

“Following the media reports that were published in February and March this year and a strong lead being taken by WWLA, the Law Society has now put in place measures to address safety issues including education sessions, a survey about sexual harassment and a working group to address regulatory issues. I am hopeful that this combination of initiatives will result in lasting cultural change,” says Ms Aldred.

The introduction of the Gender Equitable Engagement and Instruction Policy requires adopters to agree to refer or assign a certain percentage of litigation work to women lawyers within a year of joining.

Ms Aldred says she is disappointed with the policy’s target for women to be referred as lead counsel in 30% of court/arbitral proceedings or major regulatory investigations.

The policy is to be reviewed in three years with a view to increase the target to 35%. Ms Aldred says “with a profession that has comprised about 50% women for a long time, it seems bizarre to set a minimum target of 30%, and I find it depressing that a possible move to 35% is regarded as the best that might be hoped for on review”.

“I would urge the Law Society to vary the policy (as it is able to do) to increase the target to 50% well before the end of three years. Equity should mean equity.”

Taking action

As stated by the contributors in 2017, gender parity has no quick or easy fix.

However, this year the legal profession has been forced into not only addressing pay parity issues, but harassment and bullying as well, with both being publicly acknowledged as issues that need to be, and are being, addressed.

That said, there are many lawyers in New Zealand whose attitude and treatment of women in the profession has always been positive and respectful and, while other aspects of gender parity may have fallen to the wayside in the discussion and activity of the last five months, it is still an issue that the Law Society has not forgotten about.

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