Zina Edwards is a partner at Hamilton Locke. In this role, she is responsible for advising numerous funds, asset managers and other non-bank lenders in relation to investments in complex structured finance transactions, restructuring and special situations.
What are your thoughts on diversity within the legal profession?
I think we are still a little behind where we should be. When I started in this profession twelve years ago, there were more women than men in the graduate recruitment level. That doesn’t quite reflect on the Partner numbers right now, so there must be a problem somewhere, a reason why these female lawyers are not progressing through the ranks. I do think more firms are starting to focus on diversity now, but it’s still far from where the number should be.
In your opinion, why do you think it is important to have diverse teams?
If you have a homogenised team, you can’t really get a good product at the end. You need to have people from different backgrounds and create a culture that allows them to freely express their opinions. If we want to build a dynamic workplace that innovates the legal market, we need to have diversity.
Do you think there is a generational difference in terms of how people view diversity?
I think so. I believe that we are moving away from the more traditional views on gender and that people are seeing the possibility of having a career and taking up a different role. Whether it is progressing through a corporate career, having a family, or not having one, people shouldn’t feel pressured into making choices based on traditional gender roles or notions of what you should do.
As someone who has reached the senior exectutive level within the profession, were there any role models that have helped you along the way?
I’ve had a number of role models and a lot of them actually came from my peer group. When I was a senior associate, I was very fortunate to find myself among many successful career women, who all made different choices based on their personal circumstances. Seeing the tenacity and talent of those women really inspired me to work hard and showed me that it is possible to be successful in my career while having a family.
And are there times when female leaders who experienced gender inequality do not offer help to others in overcoming obstacles along the way?
I had before. In my previous roles, I have seen senior women that are less supportive, throwing out roadblocks where they could’ve supported me as I became more senior, but I do believe that these situations are changing. A lot of the senior women that I network with or am friends with are understanding the challenges and looking at bringing other women through. I am trying to do that within my organisation as well.
What are some of the things that you're focusing on in terms of diversity and inclusion?
As a growing business, we’re trying to build a scalable model with things like parental leave so once we get to a particular size, we can have a market leading policy on those grounds.
We are very conscious when it comes to talking about flexible working or parental leave that we do it in the context of all our employees and not just the women’s. We’re trying to address the way we do work. Lawyers don’t have to be in the office to do most of the things we do, so we are trying to create a really flexible working environment, where people can work from home, remotely or part-time. And in terms of parental leave, we want something that applies to parents, not just mothers, because fathers can step up to do those things too.
We also do soft skill training like leadership training for all our lawyers, so people have those skills and can develop them.
Do you have a quota in mind in terms of the gender balance in senior roles?
Not really at the moment. While the current Partner number is imbalanced, there are plans for that to change. When we foster lawyers to senior positions, I don’t see the reason why we can’t get close to the numbers that would represent the legal profession, which is at least half female if not more.
What do you think the Legal profession as a whole can do to improve diversity and inclusion?
There should be a reframing of the way which we talk about things like parental leave and flexible working because it is something that all employees need and want at different times in their career, not just women, so there’s no reason to single them out in these discussions. Organisations would also need to do more to help women who want to grow into leadership roles, like providing extra resources to help them overcome structural difficulties such as the existing status quo.
If you could go back in time and give yourself advice, what would it be?
I would tell myself to be more confident. I think there was this confidence issue where I felt the need to be 100% prepared all the time, sometimes over prepared even. I did have the skillsets to do more than what I was doing, so maybe I could’ve put my hand up for more opportunities, not in an aggressive way but a more confident manner. I would also tell myself to be patient. Good opportunities always come to people who work hard, so there’s no need to be in any massive rush. They did for me, just not from where I thought they would come.
What advice would you give to organisations that have diversity on the top of their agenda but haven't executed any strategies yet?
Personally, I don’t really see much value in having those tokenistic women’s days. That’s all great, but you don’t get to bake cupcakes once a year and think that you’ve done great in terms of diversity. I think you need to look at what’s actually happening in the organisation and look at providing leadership training. If you are recruiting over 50% talented female lawyers, what can you do to help them overcome structural difficulties and progress to more senior roles? I think it’s about leadership programmes, breaking down those perception barriers, making sure that senior leaders are treating them as equal, the language that you use, and the way you network with clients. So, look at what you are doing, what is happening, and how you can fix those problems.