"There is a lot of highly qualified and experienced female talent in the industry and we want to showcase it"
Licy Benzaquén, member of the Managing Committee of WIP-Peru (Women in the Profession), tells us about the work the organization has been doing to promote female leadership in the legal profession, its upcoming projects, such as the expansion to other provinces, and the barriers in the way of women in the legal profession in Peruvian society.
Leaders League: When and why was WIP Peru created?
Licy Benzaquén: WIP was born in Peru in 2016 after a group of female lawyers became aware that there was a lot of gender inequality in the legal profession and that career opportunities for female lawyers were not the same as for their male colleagues.
Under the initiative of the Cyrus R. Vance Center of New York, an institute that promotes diversity in the legal profession, the idea grew to get more women into leadership positions in the legal profession and promote the concept of equity. In 2016 there were only 10 women lawyers, today there are 1,118.
How are you organized?
We abide by the principles of respect, trust and sorority and have five avenues of activity, directed respectively by the The Rules of the Game, Leadership, Mentoring, Visibility and We Measure committees.
What does the work of each committee consist of?
The Rules of the Game Committee gives tools to organizations with the aim of promoting the leadership, participation and visibility of female lawyers. In 2018 we produced a publication containing the latest recommendations so that law firms and other organizations where lawyers are employed have an at-a-glance guide to the things they can and should be doing to improve the lives and careers of female lawyers.
Our culture, like many in South America, is quite male-centric, and this puts career women in a complicated situation when they want to have a family. We are currently working on version 2.0 of the guide, which takes into account the implications of the pandemic.
The Leadership Committee, for its part, is focused on developing networking opportunities for women in the legal profession. Workshops and training sessions are provided to women on topics such as soft skills and taking a holistic concept of professional.
In the Mentoring Committee, younger lawyers benefit from the experience of older ones. A mentoring package with a set format and duration has been designed and this has been very successful.
Women in the legal industry don’t have to choose between their careers and families and can develop professionally using the tools we give them
The last avenue is that of visibility, where the participation of women lawyers in panels, seminars and conferences is encouraged. We have implemented the "Quorum" commitment, whereby institutions are invited to commit themselves to ensuring an equal balance of men and women on the panels of the events they are managing. If we are invited to an event, the first question we ask is: are there women attending?
We have created a list of female professionals who have all kinds of specialties because the answer we usually get from event organizers is "we couldn’t find women specializing in the panel’s subject certain area", when in fact many exist and are first class. There is a lot of highly qualified and experienced female talent in the industry and we want to showcase it. So far we have 330 member institutions, among them many law firms and major companies.
Finally, there's the We Measured Committee, which conducted a survey in association with Datum on a number of managing partners in law firms which found for example that female law school graduates do not become partners at anything like the same proportion as men, and the industry needs to take a long look at itself and find out why that is.
Which of the above programs have had the greatest impact?
The mentoring programs and the Quorum commitment have had an immediate impact. Furthermore, the Rules of the Game Committee is seeking to expand WIP's areas of activity and spread our message to other provinces in Peru.
In 2019 we had a fantastic reception at an event in Trujillo where we met many prominent women in the industry and we want to establish contact with women in other provinces too. We plan to reach out to women practicing law in Arequipa and Cusco and also approach law students.
How did the pandemic effect your organization’s work?
With the pandemic it seemed that all the progress we had made was wiped out. It is frustrating, because many of the recommendations we made in the aforementioned guide, such as working remotely, organizing time, and sharing functions, etc., were put into practice out of necessity yet, instead of helping liberate female lawyers, resulted in these women being burdened with additional responsibilities at home.
Female professionals who have been advancing the cause of equity have, therefore, taken on an additional burden which is something we are trying to address now at WIP.
According to the last survey you conducted in 2018, only 3 out of 10 female lawyers ever make partner. Why do you think this is?
Basically, it is a cultural issue. It is still widely thought that women should exercise certain roles and that when they get married they should choose between one path or another. This notion has been adjusted a little with the pandemic, and not in all cases for the better.
In addition, our profession has a long, testosterone-driven history and is a very demanding and stressful job that does not really allow for a proper work-life balance, so many women of childbearing age put their careers on hold and just never return. WIP is here to tell them that they don’t have to choose between their careers and families and can develop professionally using the tools we give them.
What are for the main obstacles stopping women from reaching their potential in the legal industry?
The barriers are, above all, our own biases. Many women are just as career minded as men but take on positions that perhaps do not demand so much of them, in order to have time for their families, and what tends to happen over time is they fall too far behind the curve career-wise, out of a fear of not being able to juggle everything.
We want to teach institutions, including law firms, that women are quality professionals and can be high earners for them, and rather than waiting for the culture to change, the can start provides flexible schemes so that female lawyers can develop adequately and find the work-life balance that bests suits them.
Do you think that companies and law firms are amenable to taking a more flexible approach?
Yes. The idea is to convince enough of them that this strategy is profitable and to make them realize that, just because some women need time for maternity or other personal commitments, this is no reason to let them go, because in the end, they are losing an asset and a profitable resource they should be seeking to maintain. Every cultural change takes time but I believe that, with the new generation coming in, change is on the way.
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