Kiwi law firm appears in top 50 list of leading APEC companies

by Sophie Schroder17 Nov 2014
Kiwi law firm Kensington Swan has been recognised as one of the top 50 leading companies for women in APEC.
The study, undertaken by APEC’s Policy Partnership on Women and the Economy, acknowledges three New Zealand companies: Kensington Swan, Westpac New Zealand, and the Bank of New Zealand.
Building upon APEC’s Growth Strategy of 2010, this latest project seeks to provide support for increased career and economic opportunities for women in the APEC region and beyond.
The research was carried out between June and October this year, and its findings have just been made public.
Sandra Gilliam, the people director for Kensington Swan, told NZ Lawyer that being recognised in the top 50 list is “hugely significant” and gives formal recognition to the firm’s efforts to support women in law.
“We have actively worked towards making Kensington Swan a place everyone wants to work at, and where their success and their ability are recognised,” she says.
The firm’s strategy for gender equality is a three-pronged process: Getting policies right for everyone, recognising unconscious bias, and providing training that meets the particular needs of women.
In terms of policy, Gilliam says Kensington Swan has addressed any systems that may undermine the perceived value of part-time workers; and where meeting statutory obligations towards women (for example while on maternity leave) would mean less than best practice, the firm will always go for the latter.
Flexible working arrangements are also offered to all staff by individual agreement, regardless of gender.
This includes fully flexible hours, the ability to work from anywhere regardless of the hours, and tailored performance measures that suit part-time and flexible workers.
And to encourage even further growth among female leaders, Kensington Swan runs career development and leadership workshops for its women lawyers.
Recently, the firm hosted Mary Cranston, a leading international company director and former top 10 Global Lawyer.
She led unconscious bias workshops for everyone at the firm, as well as workshops specifically targeted at the female lawyers where she gave numerous practical tips to help them succeed.
But Gilliam acknowledges that the road to gender equality in New Zealand is not an easy one – especially taking into consideration our recent slip in the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report rankings – and law firms in particular can really struggle, she says.
“I think the biggest problem is a fear of what might happen if the status quo is challenged. This manifests itself in the view that by providing one group with extra help, somehow that equates to undermining others.
“Diversity is not a zero sum game where the success and empowerment of one group can only come at the expense of another. The legal profession is committed to justice and fairness for its clients, so the notion that we might be less than fair to our employees may be confronting. Justice, which is blind, is after all a woman.
Vitally, success among law firms can be very narrowly defined, and an ongoing myth is that high performing lawyers wanting a fulfilled life must make a choice, says Gilliam.
“We…do not think that partnerships have to be full-time. There are ebbs and flows in people’s lives and the highest achievements at work needn’t curtail anyone’s ambitions to have a life outside law. 
“If you are serious about embracing diversity, then you must get to grips with the idea that what constitutes success is also diverse – as long as your values and service don’t get compromised there is nothing frightening about this.”
This problem is a New Zealand-wide one, says Gilliam, pointing to our six-place slip from last year in the latest World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report, where we plummeted from seventh to 13th.
Although encouragingly New Zealand improved or stayed the same on almost all indicators, the gap has widened for economic participation and opportunities.
Gilliam thinks this could be due to the effect the GFC has had on casual and part-time workers – areas where women are disproportionately represented.
Pay equality is another pressing issue that needs addressing, she says.
“Given New Zealand’s slip was due to our performance in economic participation, and that is defined by wage inequality, and the number of senior management, technical, and legislative positions, then where we should be addressing attention and resources seems evident.
“If we further have regard to what makes New Zealand unique, and the particular structure of our economy which is largely made up of small businesses, then anything which assists women to embark on entrepreneurial ventures should be encouraged.”