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How is the Gender Equality Charter working out for legal workplaces?

09 November 2018 - By Nick Butcher

The New Zealand Law Society introduced the Gender Equality Charter to the legal profession in April this year.

The Charter is a set of commitments aimed at improving the retention and advancement of women in the legal profession. Signatories have two years to meet the commitments which include implementing unconscious bias training, conducting annual gender pay audits and closing the gender pay gap, encouraging flexible work conditions, and adopting equitable briefing and instruction practices.

Over 80 legal workplaces have signed up, covering over 2200 lawyers. The Law Society’s goal is to reach 100 by the end of year.

So how is it going for legal workplaces that have signed up?

LawTalk writer Nick Butcher, caught up with two firms that are among the many signatories.

Dyhrberg Drayton – first cab off the rank

Dyhrberg Drayton in Wellington was the first legal workplace to become a signatory to the New Zealand Law Society’s Gender Equality Charter.

The employment law firm has two partners – Steph Dyhrberg and Johanna Drayton. It’s currently a ten-person workplace comprised of six women and four men.

An illlustration of a woman standing on a ladder

“I saw the email about the Charter and hit send so fast my fingers were smoking,” Ms Dyhrberg says.

Some might think that there would be little need for the Charter in a firm that is managed by two women, as surely equality already exists?

“You could cynically say we don’t need to do anything and we have ticked a box, as we are doing most things it requires: there is no risk of us not complying. But we thought we should show we are willing and support gender equality, which we do,” she says.

It was interesting to note it was a young male intern who brought coffee and biscuits into our boardroom meeting, which prompted the question of what was it like when Ms Dyhrberg was starting out as a young lawyer in those early days of her career.

“I was an intern at a law firm in Dunedin while I was at university. Back then it would invariably have been the young women who would have been asked to take the notes, do the administration and make the coffee. It would have been seen as demeaning or beneath a young male lawyer to have been asked to do that, but that is not how anyone feels about it here,” she says.

So times have changed. The young male intern’s appearance didn’t appear staged for the sake of the story. He certainly wasn’t being punished and it just seemed normal – and why shouldn’t it?

Why unconscious bias training is valuable

The legal sector has been confronting many serious behavioural issues this year, particularly sexual harassment and bullying in the workplace, which have made headlines in the media.

Unconscious bias training in the workplace has become a big issue. Learning about one’s own unconscious biases could be quite confronting for many people who are unaware of the impact their behaviour could be having on the career development of other colleagues.

Ms Dyhrberg had a reflection to offer about this.

“The clue is in the name. People are not conscious of their unconscious biases, otherwise they’d be called conscious biases. I used the Harvard University self- assessment tool which covers stereotypes and prejudices. I did the gender test so I could recommend it to other people. I expected I would have some unconscious bias but it said I didn’t have any discernible gender bias. I haven’t had the courage to do the racial bias test yet! I know that being raised in the wilds of white Western Southland, I have some unconscious bias around race. I detect it sometimes in myself. I’d be a hypocrite not to talk about this,” she says.

Steph Dyhrberg remembers one such living example in Auckland when she was catching a taxi late at night after a function.

“I went to a taxi rank to find a taxi. The driver turned around as I went to open the back door and I saw it was a dark skinned man wearing a turban. For just a millisecond I hesitated and thought ‘will I be safe?’ I thought, there’s a slice of unconscious bias. I thought that was shameful and ridiculous, so I got into the back seat of the taxi, said ‘good evening’ and off I went. But my point is, if and when these moments surface for you, be brutally honest with yourself.”

Be brave and courageous

Ms Dyhrberg says the Gender Equality Charter unconscious bias tools should make a person aware of this behaviour.

“They’re not things to be ashamed of. What we should be ashamed of is refusing to face those issues,” she says.

“Lawyers are generally brave and courageous people when fighting battles for others. We need to be brave enough as a profession to bring these issues out and confront them.”

Ms Dyhrberg is often invited on to discussion panels and says increasingly, being aware of the make-up and questioning who is on them is important to her.

“An all-white person panel can’t speak compellingly about diversity. These days I look at whether there’s a diversity of culture, background and outlook on these panels before I decide whether to be on them,” she says.

Gender pay gap

Closing the gender pay gap is a challenging area of the Gender Equality Charter.

Steph Dyhrberg says her firm has previously had men and women working at similar levels and has had to look at whether what they’re being paid is fair.

“We’ve looked at it to be sure we are not paying anyone a different amount without a really good reason, such as experience. At the moment we don’t have people of different genders or of different ethnicities working at the same level, to compare their pay,” she says.

But what if the firm was hiring a new staff member and a female candidate wasn’t pushing hard on pay, whereas the male candidate was?

That has sometimes been her experience as an employer, in that women sometimes don’t push for the higher pay packet.

“When someone is bargaining hard for themselves and someone else isn’t, it can be a challenging situation to manage.

“We would look at market data, scarcity of skills. We would also have to look at what we are prepared to pay and in this situation ask why we are prepared to pay him that little bit more. Is it because he is earning that much in his current job or is he simply saying that? He might think he is worth it and is bargaining with you, which can come across as ‘this person is a go-getter, and let’s pay him what he is asking or close to it’,” she says.

But sometimes with potential employees who are women, she says they can come across as ‘just pleased to be possibly getting the job.’

“A woman might have a bit of imposter syndrome going on, hasn’t been paid well in her previous job and is being honest with you. A female candidate may not bargain for higher pay. You have to make sure you are not being unduly influenced by things which are not sustainable, justifiable or fair,” she says.

Could a man make partner at her firm?

While the business started off as an all-women law firm, Steph Dyhrberg says there is no reason why a man could not make partnership.

“There’s absolutely no reason why a male couldn’t make partner. As it happens our senior associate is a woman so currently she would be a bit closer to that path, if that is what she aspires to,” she says.

Ms Dyhrberg is taking responsibility for reporting on progress and providing examples of how the Gender Equality Charter is working for the firm to the New Zealand Law Society.

“As part of our professional development for our staff, we’ll be watching the Law Society’s unconscious bias webinar as a team. We’re encouraging everyone to complete the online bias test,” she says.

Other initiatives Dyhrberg Drayton will focus on include ensuring all lawyers have equal opportunity for Continuing Professional Development and an equal share of opportunities for court work or to junior in court.


How the Charter is working for Avid Legal

Avid Legal is a medium-sized practice in Wellington. They’re corporate, commercial and tech law experts, and the directors are Bruno Bordignon and Murray Whyte.

The firm committed to the principles of the Gender Equality Charter not long after it was released. Flexibility with work conditions and unconscious bias training are two of the components that really resonated with the firm.

“We signed up with the intention that it was speaking to a lot of the things that we already did. For example, we believe that flexible working conditions are not just something for appearance or women only. It’s also not something that should be seen as a career negative as it can actually enhance. We are also a firm that has two male directors so being aware of unconscious bias and creating a good culture is of utmost importance to us,” Murray Whyte says.

The team

Five other lawyers are employed at Avid Legal, four of them women. Judith Harper is a Principal and senior lawyer and she joined the firm in January on a flexible employment arrangement, after being a partner in a large firm previously.

“Judith works flexibly from Hawke’s Bay four days a week. This is something that works well for her,” Mr Whyte says.

He says a new male director has recently joined Avid Legal and will work about 80% of the week.

“That’ll give him the ability to have a morning or afternoon off so that he can drop off or pick up his children from school,” he says.

Flexibility is part of the fabric at the firm and is also afforded to junior staff.

“Some of our staff like to get a personal training session in at the gym and pick up that time later in the day. The focus is on getting things done, not being chained to a desk clocking up hours,” he says.

As mentioned, Avid Legal has already embedded flexibility into the culture of the firm but Mr Whyte says unconscious bias training was also something that stood out as needing to be addressed.

What ‘unconscious bias’ means to Murray Whyte

Avid Legal initially utilised the Continuing Legal Education webinar on ‘unconscious bias,’ which Mr Whyte says they found helpful.

So what does he think about when those two words, ‘unconscious bias’ are said aloud?

Mr Whyte uses the analogy of the best-selling book by Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, which offers explanations for many human traits including as to why human beings have biases.

“We automatically jump to the presumptions that we have because of the context in which we have grown up in. So slowing down and thinking about things such ‘as are we making this decision based on the right reasons?’ or ‘is there something driving our decision because of our make-up?’ Gender diversity is one aspect, ageism another. For us it’s about keeping a check on these issues so that we create and sustain a culture in the firm that people want to be part of,” he says.

One of the commitments of the Gender Equality Charter is to conduct annual pay audits and close gender pay gaps.

So how does Avid Legal address that contentious issue?

“For small firms that is, on one hand, quite easy because there isn’t a lot of employees to deal with. But on the other hand it is challenging because often there are not formal pay bands. We look at the remuneration we offer and ask whether that is justified for the role and level of experience and that is regardless of whether the person is male or female.

“Generally we start at what is the market pay for a specific level of work and experience and it then progresses to negotiation on an individual basis. It’s quite hard for small firms because they often don’t have the rigidity of pay levels as a person advances in seniority. But the advantage is flexibility because every situation is unique,” he says.

‘The Bench’ concept

Avid Legal introduced a flexible working concept entitled ‘The Bench’ to the firm. It’s a way for experienced lawyers and paralegals that cannot work on a more permanent basis to be called upon for specific legal tasks.

“It’s a pool of flexible lawyers who are available to work on a secondment or project by project basis for their clients. Typically they’re parents who are trying to balance other parts of their lives and more at the senior end of their career. They’re people who cannot fit into that rigid 40 plus hour week,” he says.

Mr Whyte describes the Gender Equality Charter as a great learning process.

“We’re on the journey and it’s giving us a framework to work towards a really good future. It’s very worthwhile,” he says.

Last updated on the 9th November 2018