The second in our series of thought leadership article – Kate Davenport QC

Kate Devonport QC

THE ULTIMATE BALANCING ACT – DIVERSITY

By Kate Davenport QC

In 1892 Ethel Benjamin expressed her thoughts on becoming our NZ’s first female lawyer. She said “It is true that the legal profession was not open to women, and that the franchise had not yet been granted, but I had faith that a colony so liberal as our own would not long tolerate such purely artificial barriers.”

I wonder what Ethel would think of those ‘artificial barriers’ continuing to in the legal profession 125 years later?

Whether in the boardroom, the legal office or the courtroom, it’s time we tip the scales of workplace justice back in the favour of all New Zealanders. Judgment around gender, personal preferences and good old-fashioned stereotyping are holding back our best and brightest talent.

Take a short stroll around Shortland Street or Lambton Quay and you’ll experience a telling glimpse of the unconscious bias faced by women at the top or seeking to reach to the top echelon of our nation’s corporate and professional sectors.

Storefronts which show tailored men’s suits in traditional tones, dimly-lit wood panelled bars and barber shops are undeniably all targeting men while even the newest restaurant has a distinctly masculine undertone to its interior design. These observations are probably not surprising considering the recent Deloitte Women in the Boardroom report revealed that only 28% of Kiwi board seats are occupied by women, 11% of board chairs are held by women and female CEOs are nearing extinction.

Deloitte New Zealand Partner Peter Gulliver rightly noted “bridging the gender divide in the workforce is not only a matter of fairness, but also of effective governance and inclusive economic growth.”

But there are beacons of hope. Our Supreme Court boasts the first ever female majority and three out of 13 barristers in a recent Queens Counsel intake were women. Likewise, female Ministers, business leaders, athletes and those breaking new ground in science and the arts provide wonderful role models for our young women.

So as the fabric of society in New Zealand continues to change and take shape from a myriad of cultural and social cues, why is it that the legal profession lags behind?

Tales of talented young women dropping out of the legal profession too soon continue to abound. Women can find it challenging to figure out how to make their career and home life a manageable equation, yet the legal profession can offer many benefits including flexibility and excellent pay. As firms recognise the evolving dynamics of households – working Mums and home-based Dads, or 2 parents with career aspirations – the need to move with the times is critical in order to keep individuals feeling fulfilled. Law Firms need to keep pace or lose ground to other businesses who offer talented people (both men & women) a better balance.

Female lawyers can feel as though others perceive their skills are destined to only resonate in Family Court – a short sighted and potentially offensive perspective for family lawyers and non-family lawyers. Action needs to be taken, not simply talked about, in order to re-educate clients to ask for the right lawyer, not just the right ‘guy’, which will unlock many more opportunities for female lawyers. This action is needed at all levels of the profession. We need to search out the right talent and be truly gender blind.

So what would my advice be to young women starting out in the legal profession? It would be: back yourself, build your personal brand by looking at what sets you apart from others and cultivating those characteristics or talents, and don’t ever be afraid to say, “I want your business.” See your career as a long game. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want – equal pay, great work and a flexible work schedule.

How about for the men in positions of influence in firms round the country? I’d say that diversity is about equal opportunities & getting the best talent is about recognising that the society their businesses thrive in is a multi – cultural, connected society in which both genders offer talent energy and enthusiasm for their business. Embrace the kaleidoscope of perspectives that society and clients demand, and open doors for all. You and your business will benefit immeasurably.

Since writing this there have been some very positive steps taken by the NZLS and the NZBA.   Watch this space for a soon to be announced initiative on gender equity.

www.NZLS.org.nz

www.NZBA.org.nz