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September 6, 2010 | by  | in Opinion |
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Is there such a thing as a woman-lawyer, or just women who are lawyers?

With over half of all university students being female, along with two female ex-Prime Ministers, a female Chief Justice, a female ex-Governor General you could perhaps be forgiven for thinking that at least for the tertiary-educated, professional woman gender is no longer an obstacle.

However, the recent Human Rights Commission (HRC) report Human Rights and Women, released in March, indicated that in the business sector, only a very small number of governance and leadership positions are held by women. This is reflected in the fact that only a quarter of people with incomes over $75,000 are women, and the median annual income of women is over a third lower than men’s.

When it comes to law, the 2008 HRC census on women’s participation showed that 41.6 per cent of practitioners are women, while 19.34 per cent are partners of law firms, and women are much more likely to have partnerships in smaller firms. In terms of the judiciary, 26.5 per cent of all judges are female—and the report noted that the judiciary was an area in which “progress has all but stalled in terms of women’s appointments”. The explanations behind these numbers are many and complex, and there is not the space here to canvas them all. But there are also qualitative, not just quantitative questions to be asked in this context.

Before lamenting the lack of female partners it is important to understand why it is important, in a substantive sense beyond the obvious arguments, for numerical equality, to have more female partners. Are there substantive differences between women and men in these positions? Is there such a thing as a woman-lawyer, or just women who are lawyers? Woman-partners, or just partners who happen to be women?

One of the issues these questions implicate is measures of success. Often measures of success and pathways to success are unaccommodating of female lawyers who may take maternity leave, or work part-time in order to take care of children, or who follow a displayed preference for areas of law such as family law, which are not a part of traditional conceptions of the highflying corporate lawyer.

The presence of women in decision-making positions and positions of authority within the legal profession provides an opportunity to influence the culture of the workplaces. In terms of judicial appointments, the continued lack of demographic representativeness of our judiciary is particularly concerning. As stated by the Ministry of Justice, judges should be “aware of, and sensitive to, the diversity of modern New Zealand society. It is very important that the judiciary comprise those with experience of the community of which the court is part and who clearly demonstrate their social awareness.” The presence of women on the bench is important in terms of ensuring the culture of the court room is truly reflective of our diverse community.

The Law Students Society and Chapman Tripp are hosting a panel discussion on this topic on Thursday, 16th September at 5:30pm at the Chapman Tripp offices, 10 Custom House Quay, Wellington CBD.

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