Gender Equality

The final session of the IAWJ conference, titled “Gender Equality”, was chaired by President of the New Zealand Law Society, Tiana Epati. Epati opened by talking about the concept of “mana wahine”. In te ao Māori, “mana” means spiritual power and strength. “Wahine” means women. Together, “mana wahine” is the spiritual power of women and the combination of the two is “potent and full of possibilities”. Epati also described the term being a verb, that is, it is what we do. Certainly, the keynote speaker of his final session has done a lot. Epati introduced Baroness Helena Kennedy QC as embodying “mana wahine” as a constant state of action.

Baroness Helena Kennedy QC

Kennedy opened by recalling how she came to New Zealand some years ago to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of Ethel Benjamin becoming a barrister. Back then, Benjamin had become a barrister before there had been any women barrister in the United Kingdom. Benjamin was a first and Kennedy described New Zealand as generally always being full of “fabulous and pioneering” women, with the current Prime Minister no exception.

Kennedy then went on to describe the rule of law and democracy as being twin pillars of a decent society. Yet, she said, there are two pandemics that challenge this: first, the COVID-19 pandemic, and secondly, the pandemic characterised by the rise of populist, authoritarian governments.

With respect to the first, Kennedy said that as a society we have accepted that governments sometimes need to take emergency steps to deal with great crises. For this, we accept restrictions on our freedoms of movement and assembly, and we recognise we need to sacrifice these in the name of a greater purpose. At the same time, we are entitled to expect that any restrictions governments place on our liberty are temporary.  

With respect to the second pandemic, however, it is of a different order. Kennedy described it as one where, if we are not careful, if could lead to longer term consequences that are just as dangerous as the pandemic. Authoritarian governments, wrapped up in the disguise of a democracy, will challenge the media and the independent judiciary, and these are all challenges to the rule of law. We need to be aware of these creeping changes and to protect our independence in the face of such encroachment.

Of course, none of this is to say that COVID-19 is the easier pandemic. Through Kennedy’s work, the Baroness has seen many human rights abuses. She described how many authoritarian governments have used COVID-19 as an excuse to justify human rights abuses. Separate to that, COVID-19 has accelerated rates of domestic violence due to confining people to their homes, and locking women into domestic arrangements.

Kennedy then went on to recall the state of gender affairs when she first started at the bar. She said that her professional experiences have enabled her to learn about the gendered nature of the law. When she was first called to the bar, six per cent of lawyers in the United Kingdom were women. Of those, most practiced in family or children’s law. Some chambers had a no-women policy. Domestic violence was not regarded as a real crime, and rape laws were filled with myths and accusations that women survivors were liars.

The central actor in the law, Kennedy went on to say, has traditionally been a man. Women have always tried hard to introduce our experiences into the law and by doing so we have learned and been forced to adapt to the man’s world just so we can be accepted. Now, we are increasingly wondering why it is us that have to fit in, and why the culture and systems cannot fit us.

Looking to the present, Kennedy said we all have a duty to young women, specifically to support them and their developing careers in a way that makes their journeys easier than our own. We have known for a long time some of the unfortunate gendered experiences in the workplace, and it is up to us to look out for one another. Kennedy recalled an example in the politics context where this was most needed: many women parliamentarians chose not to stand for parliament again in 2019 following Brexit due to the abuse they were subject to on the internet and social media. Kennedy said that this, in addition to social media’s unhealthy expectations for young women which in turn were not helped by the prevalence of pornography, was all a form of misogyny. Many people tend to think of misogyny as an active hatred of women when in reality it is more nuanced than that; it is about keeping women in their “place”.

In conclusion, Kennedy reflected that there are massive challenges today, here and all around the world. The task is for us to stand up to those challenges. We in the law need to have this in mind and educate our colleagues about how we can deliver a better society, together.


Reported by Diana Qiu