Elements - Diversity & Inclusion: Hazel McDwyer

Hazel McDwyer, Partner at Gadens, talks about how diversity and inclusion in the workplace generally leads to better decisions and results.

Hazel McDwyer is a Partner in the Intellectual Property & Technology Team at Gadens. In this role, she partners with clients from a wide range of industries ensuring that they can identify, secure, and commercialise their intellectual property rights and to protect their intellectual property rights from infringement. She also advised extensively on privacy issues.

Can you tell us about your career progression into your current role?

I started out in Ireland over 20 years ago as a trainee solicitor at a boutique corporate firm in Dublin, which gave me fantastic general commercial law experience. I knew early on that I wanted to specialise in Intellectual Property, having studied it in my Masters. Therefore a couple of years after I qualified, I joined a large Dublin corporate firm to work with one of the top IP lawyers in Ireland. I worked with her for three years across a couple of different firms and my experience having her as a role model was very insightful. She is still very much a mentor for me. In 2008, I took the plunge and moved to Australia, where I worked in the IP team at Henry Davis York for nine years. I then went to Addisons for another year and a half before the fantastic opportunity arose for me to be a partner in the growing team at Gadens last year and I just couldn’t pass that up.

Coming from Ireland into Australia, have you noticed any differences between the two countries?

Irish people are open, honest, and have a good sense of humour, which are traits very similar to Australians. Of course, there are many differences. For example law firms in Ireland are a bit more hierarchical, where you need to do a 3-year traineeship on rotation before becoming qualified, so it takes a lot longer. Once you are qualified, you are very independent, with your own clients, so quite a different system to here. In Australia, I have found the structure of law firms to be lot flatter and more informal. Therefore, I’d say they are relatively similar but there are subtle differences here and there.

Has your gender ever hindered or blocked any personal progression?

Overall I would say no, but looking back at my career there were definitely moments where stereotypes and unconscious bias were evident. Early on in my career, most of the partners were male and most of the solicitors were female, which was not unusual. Networking back then was more male oriented, such as through golf days and private members clubs, so junior female lawyers had less opportunity to be involved. I feel that has changed significantly now.

When I got married, there was an assumption in some quarters that I would immediately have children and put my career on hold in the meantime. There were senior people that would joke about having newlyweds on 'baby watch'. These type of assumptions make it difficult, as a woman, to progress your career. While I do think that this is changing, it’s surprising the number of times you still hear these types of issues from people.

Personally, I also feel that women undersell ourselves more than men, which, of itself, can hinder career progression somewhat.

Can you pinpoint a time within the last few years when you noticed the tone of the conversation on diversity changing?

I would say it was around seven or eight years ago when I noticed it actually becoming part of a conversation. Before then, there wasn’t really a conversation on diversity and inclusion and its benefits. It wasn’t something that firms were openly discussing, certainly not law firms. People were talking about getting more women into the workforce, but not so much the advantages to business to get more women in senior positions and taking charge of decision making. Then the conversation changed with an increased emphasis on diversity and the realisation that it is good for business.

At HDY, for instance, programs were introduced such as Career Trackers, focusing on different forms of diversity like gender and LGBTIQ. At Gadens, we are committed to equality in the workplace and are focused on achieving gender pay parity as part of our focus on gender equality. Gadens is also a signatory to the Law Council of Australia's Equitable Briefing Policy, a policy intended to drive cultural change within the legal profession.

What do you think are the benefits of having diversity in the workplace?

Diversity of thought is a major subject that has been discussed over the past few years. I feel that 'group think' is possibly one of the biggest obstacles to development and growth. Having a homogenised group, such as by gender, ethnicity or socioeconomic background makes it difficult to generate new ideas, compared to having a room with diverse people that have different abilities and strengths. Diversity generally leads to better decisions and better results. The legal profession, for instance, has been going through significant changes over the past few years and ensuring that we have a diverse workforce will enable us to face the challenges ahead.

What advice would you give to individuals having children and trying to ensure that there is no compromise between their personal and professional lives?

While I don’t have any children myself, I have seen so many of my friends, family and colleagues struggle with the balance between family and work as they are trying to be the best at both and putting themselves under pressure. What I’d say is be open about any issues that you’re having and don’t try to be everything to all people, instead prioritise. If you need to get home in the evening for your children, make sure that you communicate this effectively in the workplace. Once people know why you’re doing something they generally are more agreeable to it.

So I think it’s having the courage to say to people “this is what I have to do” and not trying to do everything yourself. At Gadens we have a flexible approach. Staff can easily work from home if they need to, it really is not an issue. Many will leave the office to pick up their children, for instance, and then log on at home. Culturally, it is encouraged, so I think that this helps with the ongoing balancing act that parents undertake.

You mentioned that the firm is embracing technology in bettering the working environment. Are there any objectives or outcomes the firm is working towards in terms of having representation?

We’ve currently achieved 50-50 at the senior lawyer level and 33% of the partnership is female, which is much higher than average. Of course, there is a plan to make it more and more diverse but I believe we are going about it a bit more informally compared to other firms. There are no quotas or targets to hit, but there has definitely been a conscious effort to ensure we have a greater female representation at senior levels of the firm.

With this informal approach, are there any specific policies / initiatives that HR has launched or is it more of a gut-feel approach to carry on what has been working so far?

We have ongoing training for staff. For instance, we have had unconscious bias training for the whole firm. It was very interesting because something as simple as making people stand up based on their age group or whether they have been directly impacted by someone with mental health issues would hit home as to the diversity we have within the organisation, and help people deal with the unconscious bias around those type of things. That’s very much an area we are looking at, which I think is going to reflect in the programs and in our leadership.

Where do you think we are on the journey and what do you think is next?

I think we are fairly progressed when it comes to gender diversity as everyone is aware of the issue. If you look at most boards now, either they already have a certain number of women or they’re trying to. But I believe there is still a long way to go, particularly in the Legal profession, and that goes for other types of diversity as well, like ethnicity, disability, and age. For example, there are many firms that encourage senior people to leave at a certain age, even some of the big firms around the world, losing a wealth of talent in the process. Businesses need to reflect society as a whole and I don’t think that many corporate law firms do at that well at moment, which is something that needs to be worked on.

Do you foresee the emphasis on diversity continuing to be a part of the DNA of the business as you grow?

There is definitely an emphasis on attracting more female partners to the firm and I see this extending to other areas of growth in diversity. As a professional advisory firm, it’s important that you reflect clients and their values, that way you can resonate with them and work together better.

Do you think the media's portrayal of the Legal profession reinforces the stereotypes that exist?

Yes I do. What we really see are two extremes of stereotypes. On the one hand, we have those television shows that show lawyers being glamorous, high powered, money driven (with cases completed within the hour long episode!) - a world of really attractive people under the leadership of someone who is, more often than not, male. On the other hand, we have newspaper articles that portray the Legal profession as archaic, insular, homogenous and privileged. Neither of these stereotypes reflects the reality, which, of course, is quite different.

And I think some of it is also on the powerful women we see in those portrayals, they kind of lack feminine traits, which seems to have further perpetuated the myth about the legal profession.

Very much so, a powerful woman is usually portrayed as a 'ball-breaker' and a powerful man with the same traits is seen as a role model.

It has traditionally been more difficult for women to get ahead in the legal profession. For some senior female practitioners, they have had to fight to break through the glass ceiling. They have been up against a room full of men so they’ve had to work a lot harder to get where they are and sometimes have had to exhibit more male characteristics in so doing. However, I feel that this is changing and that there is plenty of room for women to embrace their feminine traits and still progress their careers. For instance, women can be the most amazing mentors and it is our responsibility to ensure that the young professionals who we are responsible for are encouraged to be themselves and to be the best that they can be, no matter what they do, regardless of gender, ethnicity, age, background etc. This will hopefully lead to a happier and more engaged workforce, with the levels of diversity needed to keep ahead these days.

Posted over 3 years ago
About the author:
Brett Rose

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