July 17, 2016

Damning sexism report reveals road blocks for NZ’s junior female lawyers

Published on Stuff

A damning new report into gender issues amongst the country’s legal fraternity reveals female lawyers are still well-outnumbered in the top spots.

It’s prompted one leading lawyer to send the “timely reminder” to all her staff.

Auckland lawyer Mai Chen, said she was “sad” to read the results of the ‘First Steps’ report by law graduate Joshua Pemberton.

The paper found that 354 of 531 junior female lawyers surveyed considered that their gender was the cause of a variety of challenges they faced.

“It’s sad for me to read the report about subconscious or conscious bias that women may face… the law is hard enough without employers, colleagues, clients, putting barriers in the way. This is a tough profession. It is hard to be a lawyer,” said Chen.

Pay discrepancies, a lack of female mentors, explicit sexism, implicit biases within workplaces and the perceived possibility of having and raising children impacted women’s prospects in the profession, the report found.

Chen, who entered the profession in 1986, said she hoped that with a growing number of women doing “great things” in the law that the stereotypes would change.

“This is not about equality and it’s not about justice… it is simply about ensuring that you’ve got the best talent to provide the best advice to your clients.”

The findings were part of the New Zealand Law Foundation-funded report, which looked at the experiences and retention of New Zealand’s junior lawyers. Survey respondents questioned why there was still a glass ceiling for women wanting to progress in the law.

“As a female it seems statistically likely that I will progress slower and ultimately be paid less than male colleagues,” reported one interview subject.

The New Zealand Law Society reported that the number of female law graduates had exceeded that of their male counterparts since the 1990s.

Wellington QC Mary Scholtens said there had been a belief that the abundant number of female grads would eventually filter up into higher level positions, but three decades on they were still not “finding their way to the top”.

Law Society figures identified 35 per cent of directors were female and 24 per cent of the 1951 partners were female, as at February 2016.

“My perception is that confidence is one of the two things holding them back, and the other is culture.”

Lawyer turned health coach, Raewyn Ng left the profession after three years to better her health. Her move out of the industry was influenced in part too by ‘imposter syndrome’, which affected her confidence.

Canterbury Young Women’s Legal Association member and Cowan Litigation director Katie Cowan, 28 said the issues affecting women was a problem the entire profession needed to address – and talk about at a management level.

“Women are extremely talented and smart and capable and do make a contribution and the men lose just as much if the women fade away into the mist.”


Through their annual university Law Revue, Harriet* and her peers joked about the stereotypes in their soon-to-be-profession. The 26 year-old has come to realise, after more than a year practising law, that those stereotypes are still a reality for many female junior lawyers.

“I really like the profession but there are things that need to change about the way we all work.”

Of the survey, Harriet said it was reassuring to know she wasn’t the only one thinking that way.

“You do feel sometimes quite belittled. . . there is that feeling occasionally of being a young woman rather than a strong man, who is capable,” she said.

“It makes me question whether it is the profession I want to be in when I am made to feel really undervalued.”

*Not her real name. The interviewee asked to remain anonymous to protect her identity.

Sunday Star Times