Here at Emma Lewisham, we are always looking for different sources of inspiration. We seek it out in almost everything we do and from everyone we meet. We're fortunate to have come across some incredibly inspiring women on our journey. Women who challenge our thinking, influence our direction and spark a fire within us to make change. Our new series is a chance for you to familiarise yourself with some of New Zealand's most ground-breaking women.

Introducing Emma Lewisham Changemakers.

The first in our Changemaker series is the ever-inspiring Tiana Epati. President of the New Zealand Law Society, mother and all-round mover-and-shaker. I interviewed Tiana to find out more about her day-to-day life, what success looks like to her, and what we can do to initiate change. 

Tiana, can you please introduce yourself and tell us about your role?

My father is Samoan and my mother is from Adelaide, South Australia.  I grew up in Samoa and came to New Zealand at the age of 10, when my parents separated.  My father had been a lawyer in Samoa and, later, in the 1990’s in South Auckland. I followed in his footsteps and was fortunate, through a chance meeting as a waitress, to get a graduate position with the Crown in Auckland as a prosecutor.  I did that for over 10 years and then moved to Gisborne with my Ngati Porou husband, Matanuku Mahuika, and our children.  I became involved with the Law Society in Gisborne because I felt  the area wasn’t getting enough judicial resource.  We had no resident judges at the time.  Now we have three!

My involvement with the Law Society at the regional level was a really positive and empowering experience.  I realised the change which could be made by working together with National office staff and other key members of the profession. When the role of President came up in 2018, I decided to put myself forward and was subsequently elected by the Council of the New Zealand Law Society who are, in turn, elected representatives of each part of the national profession. It has been an incredible privilege to have been chosen by the legal profession.

The role of President is one which has evolved a lot in the past 10 years. It is meant to be a part-time role but takes up far more time than most appreciate. I am essentially the public face of the New Zealand Law Society who both represent and regulate the legal profession.  I maintain all key relationships with the judiciary, the Government and key stakeholders in the profession and public.  I also Chair the Board and Council who make all the key decisions for the organisation. 

I am often asked for an explanation about what the New Zealand Law Society do and the simplest way I can describe it is that we act as kaitiaki or guardian.  Of the public in our role as the regulatorof the legal profession to maintain high standards in the provision of legal services.  Of the profession as a membership organisation which also provides support services and advocacy.  And of the rule of law by independently presenting submissions on law reform and to the higher courts on cases which decide important questions of law.   

You once said that your idea of success as the President of the New Zealand Law Society is if you can get every lawyer to understand that they all have their role to play. If every lawyer changes a little bit, the whole profession changes a lot — an ideal I hold dearly with our Beauty Circle. Could you expand on this, what changes have you seen within your profession, and what changes are yet to come?

In the lead up to becoming President there was a lot of discussion about changing the culture of the legal profession and how we could be better.  There was also this expectation that the New Zealand Law Society would single-handedly provide that change.  Culture is a complicated and multi-dimensional concept.  It can also take a long time to shift.  The more I examined the various issues, the more it became apparent that every single one of us had work to do.  It wasn’t just about inequality and discrimination based on gender, but also ethnicity, class, disability, and other features which make us all unique.  An example of this is when we did a national survey on workplace behaviour and discovered that Maori lawyers experienced higher rates of bullying and sexual harassment than non-Maori.  Pacific and Asian lawyers experienced particularly high rates of bullying motivated by race. And, surprisingly, the bullying of Maori lawyers was found to be more likely to involve women lawyers.  So, this idea of only men in the legal profession having work to do was not true.  We all have work to do and we all have a sphere of influence which collectively affects the culture of the profession. 

When I was asked the question about what success would look like as President, for me, it was leading each member of the profession to take responsibility and understand their individual role.  Cleary the New Zealand Law Society have an important role to play and we are creating new rules of conduct and delivering a lot of education and initiatives aimed at changing things for the better.  But ultimately, this comes down to each and every one of us committing to being better. 

Since becoming President I have spoken openly and very publicly about the need to ensure we widen the lens on what ultimately contributes to negative culture.  That meant talking about the intersectional challenges a person can face.  I talked about racism before anyone else and it meant some initial discomfort.  But it has had the effect of opening up the discussion and empowering those who may not have had a voice to talk about it openly.

I have also led a more collaborative and united approach to moving towards change.  An example is the signing of a historic Memorandum of Understanding with Te Hunga Roia Maori – Maori Law Society and having the Pacific Lawyers Association join the Law Society Council.  When Covid-19 came, all the membership organisations came together and worked together to support the profession and public with the multitude of legal issues which arose.  Many lawyers volunteered their time to work for free for vulnerable members of the community and review urgent legislation and court procedures I am particularly proud of the way the whole profession came together to do that. 

You inspire us at Emma Lewisham as you are willing to stand up for all people and talk about issues that can seem uncomfortable for many. "What we measure and hold up says something about what we value. It also defines the narrative" this is a quote from your speech at the International Women's Day Breakfast at Parliament in January – can you please talk about the context of this quote in regards to the gender pay gap?

I have attended a number of International Womens Day events and inevitably the gender pay gap comes up as a measure for how well we are tracking in terms of gender equality. Currently, it is at an all time low of only 9.4%.  As a country, we could be patting ourselves on the back and saying women are doing better.  But the gender pay gap for Maori and Pacific women is rarely discussed, which is 20% and 28% respectively.  And I couldn’t even find a measure for the pay gap for women who have a disability because we have yet to track the disparity.  Clearly some women are less equal than others.  The risk of not talking about it, or even measuring the disparity for all different kinds of women, is that some women get left behind and forgotten about.  So I wanted to give a speech that highlighted the need to show up for each other to make sure no one is left behind.  It has been a big part of my job as President.  To make sure we give everyone a voice.  Unless we are all free and equal, none of us are. 

At an individual level, what can we do as women to bring about equality for all women? What are the small things that if we all did them, could bring about a movement for change?

It is the small things which need to come first.  I would much rather someone have an honest conversation at the family dinner table about racism and gender discrimination, than see them turn up to protest march.  I often say to people who ask me about “doing their bit” that it’s a simple two step process.  The first is what I call “doing the work” which is about self-education and taking it upon yourself to learn about different cultures, experiences and perspectives.  You cannot expect the person in the minority to educate you about difference.  You need to do that yourself.  The second is what I call “showing up”.  This is about being an active and selfless ally for those who are less fortunate and less privileged than you are.  Sometimes this is about quietly stepping aside to give someone else the platform or opportunity.  Or sometimes it’s being loud and calling out bad behaviour or discrimination.   If we all “do the work” and “show up” for others, powerful change will occur.