Matthew Backhouse

Matthew Backhouse is an APNZ news reporter based in Wellington.

Anger at Law Society's Xmas party in male-only club

File photo / thinkstock
File photo / thinkstock

The Law Society's decision to host a Christmas party at a male-only club has surprised women lawyers and prompted one to boycott it.

The society's Hawkes Bay branch will hold its annual end-of-year function at the Hawke's Bay Club, which has not had any women members since it was founded at 1863.

The function is open to all lawyers, regardless of gender - but if the party winds up at the club's members-only bar, women will not be allowed.

The choice of venue did not sit well with Langley Twigg partner Alison McEwan, who took to Twitter to announce she would boycott the function.

"The Law Society is having their annual Xmas do at Hawke's Bay Club which does not allow female members - so I won't go."

Ms McEwan did not want to discuss the matter with APNZ, saying it was a personal view which did not reflect that of the Langley Twigg partners.

But on Twitter today she commented: "My older partners are staunch members [of the club]. Might take the day off."

She said she had "a fairly robust discussion" with the partners yesterday.

Law Society spokeswoman Donna Buckingham said the society was opposed to gender discrimination and the function was open to all lawyers.

"The club in question apparently has a male-only bar, but all people are totally free to attend the function at their premises. The Law Society would not organise a function where lawyers' ability to attend was determined by whether they were female or male."

The Hawke's Bay Club, a private group, is entitled to restrict membership to men under the Human Rights Act.

"That does not mean that we can't hope that the club might be persuaded to change its policy and allow anyone who wants to become a member," Ms Buckingham said.

Auckland Women Lawyers' Association president Rachael Reed said she was surprised the Law Society would choose a venue that some members of the profession would not want to go.

"If they were aware that some members may feel that - because of the history and the membership of the club - that they would feel uncomfortable being in that environment, I would be surprised that they would use that venue as a function centre."

Ms Reed said it would have been preferable to make sure all members were comfortable and wished to attend.

Asked whether the legal profession remained a "boys' club", Ms Reed said the figures told their own story.

Women had been in the profession in roughly equal numbers to men for the last 20 years, but only 18 per cent of partners at large law firms in Auckland were women.

The number of women appointed as Queen's Counsel also remained low, while only 28 per cent of judges were women.

Ms Reed said the association was undertaking research to see what barriers women lawyers faced in progressing through to partnership, compared with men.

"We're surveying both men and women to see if there's any gender distinction in what these women perceive they can achieve."

Women's Affairs Minister Jo Goodhew said male-only clubs were outdated, which was evident by the fact there were very few left.

The Government's role was to promote lawful and anti-discriminatory practices in public life, but some private organisations could still have restrictions based on gender.

"However I believe these clubs miss out by not including women."

The Hawke's Bay Club did not return a call for comment.

- APNZ

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