Miriam Dean QC was the first woman to make partner at law firm Russell McVeagh, the first woman to be appointed president of the New Zealand Bar Association and was made a Queen's Counsel in 2004. However, none of these career opportunities initially crossed her mind.

"Was making QC always on my list of career goals? Absolutely not, it never occurred to me. Even when I took on my first law job, I would never have dreamed of being a partner one day."

This is just one of many reasons Dean, together with Andrea Thompson, Director of Catapult Leadership Training, has developed "Leading Your Career" workshops for the Auckland District Law Society. When Dean completed her Masters at Harvard in 1983 and began working at law firm Russell McVeagh, the business had been operating for over 100 years yet there had never been a female partner. "There was this little thing in the bottom of my stomach that maybe I could be their first women partner but I quickly dismissed it," says Dean, who did not feel confident about voicing her career aspirations.

This highlights what is perhaps the biggest challenge for women in their careers: a lack of self-confidence and self-belief. According to an article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Dr Wiebke Bleidorn, this is not limited to those working in law, or even women in Western societies.

Advertisement

Bleidorn asked over 985,000 men and women across 48 countries to rate the phrase, "I see myself as someone with high self-esteem".

The study found that, regardless of age, country or culture, men have higher self-esteem than women.

Though the glass ceiling still exists, particularly in certain professions, some of the biggest career challenges women face are internal. "A lot of the challenges revolve around the personal barriers women put up," says Dean. "I didn't know the 'imposter syndrome' existed until about 10 years ago. If I had known that in the early days when I was plagued with self-doubt, it would have made such a difference."

We need to learn how to network in a way that is more comfortable for women

SHARE THIS QUOTE:

Dean encourages women to be bold when it comes to taking calculated risks in their career. "When a woman is offered an opportunity, she has to tick seven out of 10 boxes to accept it whereas a man only feels he has to tick about three. If you don't take risks, you don't get opportunities. You have to actively plan your career and think about what you want and how you are going to get there. This is what the workshops are about."

Participants create self-profiles, discuss career barriers and opportunities, draft personal brand statements, and think about how better to "market" themselves, giving them the tools they need to build their careers. For many attendees, the chance to learn from someone they respect and admire is also a big draw.

Anna Parker, Solicitor at Auckland law firm Hesketh Henry, attended a "Leading Your Career" workshop in April this year. "Miriam has a fantastic reputation in the industry and I was keen to hear about her experiences and learn about improving my own career development."

During her one-day course, Parker gained a deeper understanding of her workplace behavioural styles and those of the people she works with.

"Understanding how you need all the different personality types to run a successful business has helped with how I deal with certain situations," says Parker. "I also learned it's important to speak up for yourself and be open about what you want to achieve."

One of the things Dean enjoys most about the workshops is sharing tips she has used to enhance her own career over the years. "Fake confidence, no matter how nervous you are. I used to make a point of wearing bright colours. It takes a lot of confidence to walk into a room in a shocking pink suit. It also got me noticed."

She cautions women about feeling the need to be seen as one of the boys. "It is important to be yourself.

"My femininity is important to me. I don't want to be a woman in male clothing."

She encourages women to adapt to doing business in a way that suits them. "I used to dread going to networking functions on the top floor of Russell McVeagh with mostly male clients talking about rugby or cricket. We need to learn how to network in a way more comfortable for women."

For many female employees, it comes down to learning how to stand out in a way that is comfortable for them.

"One of things I say is we have to learn how to toot our horns. You don't have to blast it like the men, but we have to speak more positively about what we bring to the table."

During the workshops, women are encouraged to forget about the barriers and think about where they would like to be in their careers and how they are going to get there. Dean encourages female solicitors to think about how they are going to differentiate themselves from their male colleagues and why a client should come to them instead.

"In our last workshop, one woman was doing a lot of professional indemnity work," explains Dean, who encouraged her to come up with their own personal brand.

"She decided she was going to develop a brand that focused on protecting her clients' reputation."

This not only made the most of her professional expertise, it also aligned with her values and beliefs.

When it comes to women achieving career success, Dean believes one thing is key.

"Believe in yourself, even if you have to fake it for a while. You will surprise yourself because you will do an incredible job and realise how little there was to fear in the first place."

Upcoming workshops

Auckland District Law Society is running "Leading Your Career" workshops, with Miriam Dean QC and Andrea Thompson, in the following locations:

Tuesday, 15 August 2017, Wellington; Wednesday, 13 September 2017, Auckland; Wednesday, 4 October 2017, Christchurch.

More information is available at adls.org.nz.