A Focus on Women: A Lawyer’s View

 

In the Pacific, culture adds another layer to the challenges of achieving equality in the workplace.    One of the ways of ultimately achieving equality, not only at work, is to incorporate human rights education in schools.

Shayne Sorby has been working in the legal industry for 20 years, specializing in commercial law. She’s now the General Manager, Legal & Compliance, with BSP Life Limited in Fiji, a member of the BSP Group. It’s a job she says is an exciting new challenge and admits in her work life, she’s rarely come up against discrimination against herself as a woman. But as an advocate for women’s rights, she believes human rights education in schools would be one way to change wider attitudes and enable women to challenge discrimination if ever faced with it.

Q. As you might know, the Pacific, especially Fiji, has some of the most gender unequal workforces in the world, what is your take on that from your experience, and have you noticed much change over time in your working career?

For most of my working life I’ve been quite fortunate to work with and for people where gender has not been an issue. They’ve always been supportive of women’s roles in the workplace. The number of women in the workplace was fairly equal or more in favour of women. I am aware however that it does exist in other organisations but I do think that the landscape has changed from 20 years ago.  

There is easier access to education for women.  In tertiary education, there is an increasing number of women and you can see that trend also in the workplace. The manufacturing company, that I was with before, had 90 percent women, which may be a skewed representation of the workforce in Fiji, but using my current workplace as a benchmark, 51 percent of our staff are female.

What we don’t see enough of is that same percentage representation of women in senior and executive management and on boards. This is slowly changing as more companies are becoming more conscious of it, but we’ve still got a long way to go.   

Q. What have been some of the biggest challenges for you in building your career?

For the most part I haven’t faced any major challenges building my career.  Personally, I have had to take time off work in the past for health reasons and have had employers who were very supportive.

My work experience challenges have been more from the perspective of how the organisations I have worked for can better support women.  When I think back to my law firm days, the role was very structured -  billable hours, targets to work toward, clients to deliver to. With everyone working to the same goals, you can lose sight of encouraging or supporting women in the workplace.  What does become difficult for women at work is juggling children and a career in a competitive work environment and maintaining a healthy work life balance.

In other examples, I have faced gender discrimination where I have dealt with other parties who are sexist.  As a woman you can sometimes be taken less seriously than the men in the room and it can be quite obvious.  It can become difficult to address when you are trying to get a positive outcome for your company or client. I take it more as a reflection of the person and the company they work for.  This is why corporate culture and respect is an important part of a company’s values. 

Q. So if you met a woman who was in a similar situation to what you experienced, what sort of advice would you give her?

It’s important to have the right mindset. The challenge is how you change the attitudes of others whose prejudices are already embedded.  My advice is to be confident, believe in yourself, be heard and don’t reinforce the stereotype because you think it is expected of you. If you sense any prejudice, push it aside and let your abilities speak for itself.

Q. In the beginning of your career in law was what the representation of women like?

A majority of the legal profession at the time were men but there were a lot of women in my law programme at university.  Women from my year are now working across the Pacific in senior and executive positions.  Two women in my year are High Court judges.

Q. What do you think are the main factors which have contributed to your success in your career and in life?

I think women by nature tend to lack self-confidence and self-esteem more than men in the workplace. I have gone through those experiences personally and the key part of where I am today is being confident, not doubting your abilities and accepting the bigger challenges as that is what makes you grow.

Having good support is also a key factor – your family, friends and networks.  When I left university, I joined the Fiji’s Women’s Rights Movement Board as an emerging young leader.  That experience, the friends and mentors that I still have today played a large part in very early shaping the way I thought.

Q. If you were to share advice with young women coming into the workforce, what would you tell them?

When I talk to young people now, I ask them where they want to be and if they had the choice or opportunity, I encourage them to look for organizations with good people they will learn from who are willing to put in the time to develop them.  It is the people around you, who you learn from, that make you who you are.  I look back and am grateful for the experiences I have had. That is more valuable than making more money or a title.   

Q. What kind of example have the companies you’ve worked with set to encourage women in the workplace?

In all my experiences having women to look up to in leadership roles has been key to encouraging women in the workplace.  Having good leaders in general makes a difference.

In my previous workplace, I was very proud of the programmes and initiatives that were put in place to address areas we felt were needed to better support women.  This included counselling and access to support services in health and financial programs at work which women may not be able to afford or have time for.

I think having empathy and compassion is imperative to being more supportive to women in the workplace.  It often does take women in leadership positions to make those changes but what is not quite understood is that you get a more productive, happy and loyal asset in return.