AWLA Research Launch - A candid look at the uphill road to advancement from both sides of the line

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AWLA President Angela Hansen, pictured with Professor Judith Pringle of AUT University’s Gender & DiversityResearch Group, at the AWLA research project launch held at ADLS on Thursday 27 February 2014.

                 

On Thursday 27 February 2014, the Auckland Women Lawyers’ Association (AWLA) unveiled the much-anticipated results of its year-long research project exploring why there are so few women at senior levels in large Auckland law firms. Law News was invited to attend the launch function and to review a copy of the research report.

Consider a simple ride in an elevator on the way to an evening function after a day at work. But this lift is full of women. One clutches a shopping bag from a children’s wear store – this woman has managed to squeeze in a quick visit to purchase some school essentials for her daughter in between a busy work day and attending the function tonight. Another, while looking forward to the evening ahead, has been juggling working and studies today, and is thinking ahead with a mixture of hopefulness and trepidation to the meal cooked by her son that will await her at home. A third, who works part-time, has come in to network tonight on her day off – she drove her two young children into town and did a swap-over with her husband. Half her mind is here, the other half hopes all is going well at home.

This particular evening function marks the launch of the results from the AWLA research project exploring why there are so few women at senior levels in large Auckland law firms. AUT University’s Gender & Diversity Research Group, led by Professor Judith Pringle, was commissioned by AWLA to consider the scarcity of women partners, and tonight they are to unveil the report that represents more than a year of hard work, entitled “Women’s career progression in
Auckland law firms: Views from the top, views from below”.

One of the project’s primary objectives was to gain “a deeper understanding of the experiences and attitudes to workplace satisfaction, support and opportunities for promotion, perceived barriers to progression, explanations for women leaving the firm and the profession, and future personal work plans in law and beyond”.

There have been many studies of women in law to date – possibly, many of us would query the need for further research, and may have a preconceived opinion about the reasons for low numbers of senior women in the law. However, AWLA decided not just to take anecdotal preconceptions at face value, but to seek directly the views of those affected by these trends. The authors consider that the signal advantage of this project as compared with past research is that it provides “multiple perspectives from the same law firms on the crucial career transition – promotion to partner”. The variety of views canvassed, from those early in their careers to those who have “made it” provides a “triangulation” of data from different positions around the research question.

Rather than being “results-oriented”, Professor Pringle described the study as “qualitative and descriptive” – a thematic grouping together of meaningful quotes and comments to allow the participants’ own words to tell the story and give the feeling of what people on the coal face are actually thinking. She was particularly struck by the enthusiasm of respondents, the rich accounts they gave of their working lives, and the candour with which they were willing to speak. The perspectives revealed by the report are frank, sometimes unexpected, and display layers of complexity that transcend initial assumptions.

Background to the study

Angela Hansen, President of AWLA, noted the appropriateness of the title and scope of the research project as compared to the core values and aims of AWLA when it was first established some thirty years ago – namely to promote equality of pay, the advancement of opportunities, and the establishment and maintenance of a network of support to help women overcome barriers within the legal profession. In particular, the organisation hoped to provide support and assistance to women to enable them to reach the highest eschelons of the profession, including partnership, silk and judicial appointment.

While time has marched on over these last three decades, Ms Hansen noted that the launch of the research results was somewhat bittersweet – on the one hand being an occasion to celebrate the culmination of months of dedicated research, while on the other hand an acknowledgment that the results of that research do not necessarily show vastly improved statistics for women lawyers since that time. Although women have for many years represented over half of new legal graduates, there is no ignoring the increasingly reduced numbers of women to be found still practising further up the ladder. Far fewer women become partner than men, with many women becoming “stranded” at senior associate level.

In 2012, when the study was commissioned, only 19% of partners in law firms were women, although the total proportion of women in law firms was around 60%. As compared to overseas jurisdictions such as Australia and the USA, it appeared that a female lawyer in New Zealand was less likely to reach the status of partner than one of her international cousins. Past research has often tended to suggest it is just a “numbers game”, and that eventually the increasing numbers of women coming through law school will filter upwards to the higher levels of the profession. However, continued low female partnership numbers show that this has not happened yet in New Zealand.

The study was conducted in three phases: first, lawyers (both male and female) in the earlier stages of their careers at large Auckland law firms (i.e. those who had yet to “cross over the line” into partnership or more senior roles) were invited to participate in an online survey; second, volunteers from amongst the survey participants were interviewed in greater depth; and third, the views of those already “over the line” at those firms (i.e. those women who had already succeeded in making partner, managing partner or CEO) were sought on the same questions.

11 large Auckland law firms participated in the research phase of the project (Bell Gully, Brookfields, Buddle Findlay, Chapman Tripp, DLA Phillips Fox, Hesketh Henry, Kensington Swan, Meredith Connell, Minter Ellison Rudd Watts, Russell McVeagh, and Simpson Grierson). Over 140 people from those firms (both male and female) completed the online survey, with 64 being interviewed further.

In brief - what did the study find?

To echo the title of the 2000 movie starring Mel Gibson and Helen Hunt – what do women really want? The report is at the least a good starting place to answer this question. Although the full report runs to over 100 pages, it is well worth dipping into for the real and unedited comments of some of the research participants. The responses were recorded completely confidentially and anonymously, meaning respondents clearly felt able to be frank and open in their views. While each person’s comments reflect their individual viewpoint, the responses as a whole indicate some interesting trends.

Even those who may view the need for such research with scepticism may well be surprised to learn that, whatever level respondents were at, most practising women genuinely love the law and are willing to endure considerable juggling to make it work as a viable career for them. While they would like to see more opportunities for flexible/part-time work, with more active support for a work-life balance and better partner guidance on the career path, many would only reluctantly consider leaving the profession. 

Some of the more revealing findings are summarised as follows:

  • A love of the law: Almost all interviewees were clear that they loved practising law.
  • Perceptions around leaving firms/barriers to advancement: There were striking differences between female and male survey responses from amongst those who were not yet partners. Almost all of the women who responded (95%) endorsed the proposition that there was a trend for women to leave the firms or the profession. In contrast, 30% of the men who responded queried or disagreed with this proposition. A majority (86%) of the women indicated that there were barriers to advancement as compared to approximately half (53%) of the men.
  • What makes a successful lawyer? There was considerable similarity between male and female respondents as to “success factors” for a career in law, including ambition, determination, dedication, mental toughness and resilience. Unbroken careers, excellent support at home and having a sponsor/mentor were also recognised as crucial (although it was also noted that fewer women at senior levels meant that there was limited availability of role models).
  • Firm culture: Many respondents described the culture of law firms in more traditionally “masculine” terms such as “competitive” and “work hard, play hard”. Some women spoke of clients who either openly or discreetly preferred to deal with men, and often firm conversation and networking activities were aligned with “male” interests such as sporting events. Some of the women “below the line” considered there was still an “old boys’ network” in operation, while women who had progressed beyond that point thought that that was a thing of the past, although still accepted that there may be a “male-dominated culture”.

[Law firm culture is] not particularly compassionate, it’s very competitive, it’s quite harsh and it’s quite ruthless … I think women get fed up with it … and they probably feel that the culture is probably inherently a bit sexist … I think the law firms blinker themselves to that problem and don’t really want to acknowledge it.” (male non-partner)

“I truly believe that there’s nothing inherent about this organisation that stops you being successful as a woman. But it’s your choice as to whether you want to live the kind of life that means that you could do this job. I don’t think it’s a female/male thing.” (female partner)

  • Work/family balance issues: Participants recognised the “clash” between biological determinants and career structure, with the optimum times for having a family and career advancement often both occurring in one’s 30s – a big issue for women, not so much for men. A key issue of concern for women therefore was “if and when” to have children. While many staff wanted to work part-time hours in the future, it was accepted that this frequently “stalled” career progression. It also meant fewer opportunities to network or to focus on career building. Women “under the line” often thought that a having baby or opting for part-time work signalled the death-knell for advancement opportunities. For those who have successfully navigated this territory, the “mosaic of child care arrangements was complex” – they had strong home support, sometimes with “house-husbands” providing primary childcare.

“[T]he reality of parenting small children and having maternity leave means that it is not realistic to devote the necessary energy to achieve partnership.” (female non-partner)

“I believe that having a happy family life and partnership are achievable - but you have to spend the money and time to get it running smoothly and importantly have a supportive partner.” (female non-partner)

  • Part-time work: In the few cases where firms promoted women to partner while they were working part-time, the decision was “controversial”, and disparaging comments were often made to part-timers. The choice to work part-time is often a conscious (though not necessarily desired) decision to sacrifice advancement. However, greater acceptance of part-time work and flexible working practices into the partnership level could make real differences to women’s choices.

“A senior associate who works part-time due to looking after her child was told that [she] will not be promoted or be given any pay rise until she returns to the firm on a full-time basis.” (female non-partner)

“If you want part-time or you want flexibility in terms of hours, you would probably go to a smaller firm. Or you would go in-house to a government department or a company.” (female partner)

  • Other reasons why women leave: Aside from women who leave or struggle to advance due to clashes with family responsibilities, other common themes emerged including burnout, a male-dominated environment, the structure of work and partnership, the masculine workplace culture, pressures around “winning” work, and a desire for a more balanced life. Compounding this was the undeniably demanding nature of the legal profession, i.e. the lack of flexibility in hours worked, the importance of being available to clients, and the faster turnarounds expected due to technology like email.
  • Some good news? Despite the above, while many women felt that there were no opportunities for promotion or professional development within their firm, others perceived high levels of career support, and female partner interviewees were generally very positive about firm cultures, describing them as “competitive, energetic and collegial”. The research found that currently there is no ground-swell of people agitating for change, although there were high levels of frustration expressed with the structure for progression.

The report’s results certainly rang true with attendees at the launch function. It was fascinating to be present and witness, in microcosm, the research being lived out in real-time. One woman who was not yet at partner status commented that having children can be a case of “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” – women who leave to have children and come back must strike a balance between work and home, while women who have chosen not to do so or who have not had children yet may be left covering for their part-time colleagues, with little thanks. More senior women present on the night commented that in order to make the law work as a career (whether in conjunction with a family or even as a single woman), there had to be “something or someone” in the background providing support.

Where to now?

Regardless of age or stage, the practice of law is something that inevitably requires dedication, commitment, sacrifice and juggling – something with which few readers, male or female, would disagree. The question is, do the views revealed by the report reflect a need for change to better support women in their career progression and retention, and if so, how is this to be achieved? As one interviewee noted: “You can talk about things to death, but that won’t change things.”

While research participants recognised the need for change, advocating for change within the organisation was perceived as carrying risks, meaning law firms will also need to take responsibility from the top down. Some firms are trying to achieve this (e.g. by increasing transparency in the “progression to partnership” process and adopting new initiatives directed at developing women into senior roles). Sometimes the changes can be small with big implications: “Something as simple as having a carpark in the building. It makes life so much easier, it just makes a huge difference” (female non-partner). More than one firm has access to emergency child care facilities available.

Angela Hansen noted that the report was not intended as an “answer”– rather it is a record of viewpoints from real people affected by this debate, and as such can now serve as a starting point for further dialogue. Adjustments may be necessary at both ends of the partnership spectrum. AWLA remains committed to supporting its members in their aspirations to advance and succeed. Professor Pringle believes that both structural and cultural changes are needed, and that firms here are in a position to be world leaders in implementing creative solutions.

The research paper will shortly be available online at www.awla.org.nz.

1 Comment

This was an interesting article and the challenges facing females (and men also) in the profession are the same in the provinces (albeit with a different lifestyle). As a "part-time" female partner in a provincial firm would you be interested in views on life in the province as a female partner?

Caroline McLorinan

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