On Monday, NZ Lawyer
reported that just 19% of large law firm partnerships in New Zealand are held by women
. Common arguments include women’s supposedly greater need for the elusive work/life balance, along with male-dominated environments within firms.
However, former Reed Smith LLP and Chen Palmer Wellington associate, Tania Winslade, says that in her personal experience – and that of many of her female lawyer acquaintances – the lack of gender diversity in top legal roles comes from a chronic scarcity of foresight.
“While I qualified in New Zealand, I spent most of my career working abroad as an associate in the Commercial Disputes Europe Group for Reed Smith LLP, based in London. After a long stint abroad I returned home and joined Chen Palmer in Wellington as a public law associate and later team leader. I was there for a year and a half before leaving to have a baby. I spent most of my career working long hours, being contact
able 24/7 and usually working weekends so I subsequently decided I couldn’t do the juggling act required with a very young baby.”
Winslade’s husband is also a lawyer and she says there was limited flexibility for him to take on the carer role.
“My experience overseas with female colleagues progressing onto senior positions was that they either made the decision not to have children or had very dedicated nannies. Certainly I never appreciated the mass exodus of females out of the profession until I had my daughter. As New Zealanders, we pride ourselves on being innovative but there doesn’t appear to be much innovation within our law firms.”
Winslade and her family relocated to Auckland for her husband's work and she wasn't able to sign-on with Chen Palmer in Auckland for separate reasons.
She says she carried out initial conversations with several recruiters (including, she adds, some ex-female lawyers who had changed professions following children) and law firms to test the waters for returning to work.
However, she says what follows was a stream of one-way conversations.
“While I was offered roles, far too often it…came down to whether I would work full-time or not, an expectation that I needed to prove my commitment, or the working mother in the department (who looked like she was burning the candle at both ends) who had been offered very little flexibility would be pointed out as an example of how they were willing to go above and beyond.”
Winslade says she was also concerned about being relegated to a role where she would be seen as “treading water”, rather than having real prospects for progression.
“I don’t think anyone who has spent any period of time practising law expects to be handed anything on a plate, particularly a working mother. We all know what it’s like to work in a fiercely competitive industry. However, for me it was a no-brainer. The options were either to move in-house or look to work in a different field that would provide more of a work-life balance, at least in the interim. I know my experience is similar to others.”
She says one female friend returned to work after maternity leave had a senior partner suggest to her that she get a nanny and an apartment in town, so that she could "pop across during her lunch break".
"A lot of the male partners…their wives are either at home, or they have nannies and they almost kind of expected that to be the same for you. Certainly, I felt that if I was going to go back to a law firm, I would need that kind of support in order to be seen to be doing the hours."
She ended up working as a consultant at Obelisk, a UK company outsourced legal work through a network of ex-city lawyers and has subsequently taken up a position four days a week as a senior advisor to the Independent Maori Statutory Board.
What is clear from her experience and that of many other female lawyers, she says, is that what law firms are currently doing is not working.
“Everyone talks about the business case for women to be represented at the top level of an organisation. However, in order for change to occur, it requires proactive strategies, identifying female talent, nurturing it through to those senior positions and offering a degree of flexibility. It requires addressing unconscious systemic bias within organisations, not just maintaining the status quo. If the current proposition was not attractive to me, it’s certainly not attractive to others. If you have a pool of talent which has a valuable skillset and experience which you have invested in, why would you not try to retain it, particularly when capitalising on it is likely to assist your firm’s growth and competitive advantage?”
The XX factor: Why are female lawyers failing to reach the top?