By Sophie Schroder | 03 Nov 2014
New Zealand has just returned the worst result in its history in the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report.
The country has slipped six places in the rankings from last year and has been scored 13th in the world out of 142 countries, delivering its worst result since the report launched nine years ago.
When the global analysis was created in 2006, New Zealand fared considerably better, being placed seventh in the world. We then enjoyed four years in fifth place, two years in sixth, and last year in seventh again.
Minter Ellison Rudd Watts senior associate Julia Batchelor-Smith says although it’s encouraging to see that New Zealand’s gender gap isn’t as pronounced as in other countries; such a stark slip in rankings is disappointing.
She says the results bring to mind a speech made by former Telecom CEO Theresa Gattung at the Women, Law and the Corner office conference last week.
“[Gattung said] we should never assume that history is linear. Gains can be lost as easily as they can be made. I think it’s important that we don’t rest on our laurels simply because we have traditionally been a nation that has fostered a social and political environment in which women can thrive. That’s not enough – we need to continue to develop that culture with the aim of closing the gender gap even further,” Batchelor-Smith told NZ Lawyer.
The lawyer adds that she sees a number of parallels between the issues highlighted by the World Economic Forum data and the gender imbalance in the legal profession.
She points out that from a female representation perspective, the results show that men outnumber women in parliament and ministerial positions by more than 2 to 1.
“And that mirrors the underrepresentation we see in the upper echelons of the legal profession – although our statistics paint an even bleaker picture,” Batchelor-Smith says.
“We need to thoroughly deconstruct the reasons why so few women are making it to the top if we want to rectify the gender imbalance in those upper ranks.”
Sarah Coleman, human resources director at Chapman Tripp, agrees.
She says although the results of the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report are disappointing, such analysis is vital in uncovering continuing issues.
“[Something] I took out of the report is that pay inequality is one of the reasons for this result,” she says. “Chapman Tripp takes pay parity seriously so we undertake a lot of analysis around various factors, including gender, when we review remuneration.”
She thinks because this is undertaken and reported to the board and partnership before anything is signed off, the firm is better able to address any potential inequities early on.
“Clearly gender equality is a really important issue. We want everyone to reach their full potential – male or female…
“I think we’ve been focused on this issue for many years and we’re continually taking steps to address diversity in the firm. We’ve certainly had success in terms of measures like promotion rates.”
Tracey Cross, DLA Phillips Fox partner, shares the concern of her counterparts about the results of the World Economic Forum report.
However, she says there is arguably more progress in the legal profession than in other areas of society.
While gender imbalance is still occurring in the world of law, the proportion of women going through law school now dominates males, Cross says.
She thinks the main gender inequalities in the profession are all improving, including the issue with fewer female partners practising in law firms, fewer women progressing up into senior ranks, less women becoming QCs and a gender imbalance in the judiciary.
For example within the judiciary, Cross points out that many of the top roles are currently held by women.
“The Chief Justice is a woman (Sian Elias); the chief District Court Judge is a woman (Jan-Marie Doogue); the Chief High Court Judge is a woman (Helen Winkelmann). The role models are in place.”
Things may be improving, but they can’t be fixed overnight, she says, and references an address by Justice Susan Glazebrook, who argued that research showed masculine qualities were associated with leadership qualities, and these correlated with what were seen as the qualities of a successful lawyer.
“These amount to sociological and psychological obstacles for women,” says Cross. “They are complex, challenging and probably intergenerational to overcome. Put simply: it takes time.”
However, at DLA Phillips Fox, all signs are that the future is bright. Fifty percent of the firm’s management are now female, and women lawyers on the board has climbed to 25%.
The firm has also developed a Leadership Alliance for Women (LAW) initiative, which has the active participation by women in business and law.
And after recently attending the DLA Piper Global Women’s Leadership Summit in Chicago, Cross was inspired by three ideas that can empower women to help themselves. They are:
“Self-advocacy. We don’t do it well enough. We need to get over ourselves and do it.
“Mentoring and supporting one another. Again, this is a key. Women in law can be voices for one another. At a dinner I attended, there were 80 women lawyers wanting to support each other and look for opportunities. It was inspirational.
“Collaboration. This is a strength often attributed to women that we can utilise”.