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Gender imbalance persists in senior legal positions

The number of women and men graduating from New Zealand’s law schools has been roughly the same since the nineties, so why are we not seeing these numbers reflected in senior positions in law firms across the country and the judiciary?

Of the total number of partners at law firms in New Zealand, only 18.24% are women. Women also only represent 26.03% of the judiciary (New Zealand Census of Women’s Participation 2010).

To improve these statistics, the general consensus is that the profession needs to adopt flexible diversity initiatives and better promote women’s mentoring and networking.

The legal profession is still heavily dominated by males says Barbara Buckett, senior law practitioner, Barbara Buckett & Associates.

“It’s a difficult world for women to live in. Opinions like those of Alisdair Thompson are unfortunately still rife. 

“There seems to be an underestimate of a woman’s value in a firm in terms of work ethics and work production. Retention at a firm is also still a major issue for women,” she says.

Unless there is a change in thinking, Ms Bucket says, she cannot see a big rise happening in the number of women in the senior positions in the profession.

“There needs to be more affirmative action to get women into these areas. Society needs to affirm women’s value in the workplace.

“We have even fallen behind Australia, which has a bigger progression in the legal profession. They have better leadership development and seem to be more open to flexible working schedules,” she says.

Ms Bucket says that the legal industry is slow to pick up diversity initiatives that would very much suit women.

“Women in firms sometimes find they are passed over, not recognised at the same level and don’t get equitable partnerships. They don’t have that flexibility,” she says.

Ms Bucket studied in a different era (where all law school students had to wear ties and women were not allowed to wear trousers in court), and although she says times are now better for women, there is still a long way to go in decreasing gender disparities.

“When I began practising it was very much a male bastion, where judges wouldn’t even recognise women lawyers.

“There is still a residue of boys’ clubs and male networks in the profession. Women don’t participate the same way as men do and still this is the way people are recognised and promoted,” she says.

Rachel Reed, associate at Meredith Connell, and President of the Auckland Women Lawyers Association (AWLA) says women face a number of hurdles working in the profession.

“In a lot of places there isn’t that support for women still. There often isn’t the attitude that you can both have a family and work at a high level.

“There needs to be support – the ability to work out of the office, the ability to be supported by a team and run a team working part-time. 

“There also needs to be a better appreciation that long hours in an office don’t necessarily equate to quantity and quality of work,” she says.

In a speech delivered to the Victoria University Law Students’ Society in September 2010, Looking through the glass: Gender inequality at the senior levels of New Zealand’s legal profession, Justice Susan Glazebrook looked into why there was a poor percentage of women at the higher echelons of the legal profession.

“A common explanation for women not progressing in the profession that is often offered is that women do not progress due to family responsibilities. 

“There is still the perception that women lawyers with children are less committed to their legal careers.

“Many blame workplace inflexibility as the main driver for their resignation, along with the poor quality of their work assignments.” 

There was a prominent existence of male networks (and related mentoring) that encouraged and promote male lawyers at the expense of females, Justice Glazebrook said. 

“Mentors can play a crucial role in the career progression of young lawyers.

“Some see this lack of mentoring as one of the main factors underlying the gender imbalance at partnership level in firms,” she said.

Men are better networked that women, agrees Ms Reed, but at AWLA there is a mentoring service on offer which apparently proves popular.

“We encourage women to use women’s networks in the same way that men use men’s networks,” she says.

Rowena Lewis, solicitor in Brown’s Bay, agrees that it is still very difficult for women in the legal profession.

“Women who are very capable practitioners are not there in the numbers – they aren’t staying in firms.

“It all depends on the value law firms see in having women as part of the team at a senior level.”

She also says that it seems that the old boy’s network is still alive and well in the profession.

“If you are the primary manager of the family, you have less time for that sort of networking. 

“The problem is that women are leaving firms and even the profession,” she says.

Ms Lewis emphasises that working in the legal profession is stressful for both women and men, and that there may be more incentive to stay if good packages are negotiated. 

“It’s about getting good conditions, flexibility and getting decent work, responsibilities and recognition. It’s the whole package,” she says.

Helen Melrose, partner at Burke Melrose, says that large firms often have sizeable amounts of complex work, and to be involved in that work you have to subscribe to the culture and ethics of the firm.

“It’s hard because firms are responding to the commercial environment that they are working in. If you are not prepared to work those long hours, you don’t get that same quality of work, or financial rewards. If you want to achieve that you can, but if you want to achieve other things in your life, then it’s difficult,” she says.

Firms often lose women with seven to eight years of post admission experience into in-house positions, but as Ms Reed says, this could prove beneficial for firms.

“I’m hoping in a way that the progression of women into in-house roles will assist firms because a lot of those women will become clients of firms and work in a more flexible way and hopefully firms will take that on board more,” she says.

AWLA is currently doing cost research (in collaboration with AUT) into conducting a research project into why women are leaving seven to eight years after admission, whether anything made the difference for these women, and why they perceived they had to leave.

“Without the statistics being able to tell us honestly why these women are leaving firms and even the profession at this stage it’s hard to form strategies. We hope this research will find where the problems lie,” says Ms Reed.

In her September 2010 speech, Justice Glazebrook said that the lack of progression to the top shelf legal jobs might be affected by women not seeing enough females in higher positions either full-time, part-time or with children.

She said there needed to be more reflection of community diversity in the judiciary. 

“The face of justice should be coming from all types of backgrounds, all walks of life. It should represent society as a whole.”

This gender disparity in the judiciary could be because women tend not to be very good at putting themselves forward for positions, explains Ms Reed. 

“We [AWLA] try to get women to recognise that a lot of women feel the same and have the same confidence issues. Women tend not to put themselves out there to be judges; men seem to be better at promoting themselves. We try and give women confidence to do that,” she says.

Ms Reed also feels that the District Court should have more flexibility with working part-time. 

“I know a lot of women who would be really great District Court judges but would not want to because they can’t work part-time. Currently you can’t work part-time in the District Court. It all has to do with the cap on judges.

“It’s a shame as it would widen the scope of women available for this sort of role,” she says. 

This article was published in LawTalk 778, 12 August 2011, page 13.


Last updated on the 11th May 2012