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We talk to Juliette Derry about how women are redefining leadership.

A world away, literally, in New Zealand, we are seeing a shift; things being done a bit differently.

When Jacinda Arden became New Zealand’s Prime Minister, she showed us all that leadership could have an alternative face to the one we had all become used to. Not simply because she was a woman in an environment normally heavily dominated by men, but rather for her proudly displaying very female traits, ones not normally associated with being a world leader - nor, indeed, any leader. Arden proved that it is possible to lead with strength and conviction whilst maintaining empathy, kindness and compassion. That for a woman to succeed, she no longer has to do it by emulating her male counterparts, but by walking a different path, her own path.

This is a road that more and more women are choosing to travel on.

Juliette Derry is Principal Legal Advisor to the New Zealand Ministry for the Environment.  A powerful, important job - and one that Juliette carries out with the greatest dedication, professionalism and authority, yet with a style that is very much that of a woman.

Researching Juliette online does not reveal much about her other than a brief potted resume of her career; Juliette has been a partner in leading law firms in both Australia and New Zealand in environmental law for about two decades and also briefly worked in London. She made the move from private practice to government a couple of years ago. Not much else is mentioned. Why is this? Is she a super private individual who is protective of her life outside of work?

Meeting Juliette is a breath of fresh air. She is constantly smiling and laughing - and answers every question posed to her as fully as she can, clearly deeply considering and responding as openly and honestly as possible. She puts her lack of online presence down to the fact that since joining the Ministry, she has had her head down working on law reform and it has been all consuming. She says where private practice was about being client facing, now her role is less outward looking so she has rolled her sleeves up and scurried down an environmental rabbit hole with a determined focus to really make a difference.

Juliette grew up in Christchurch - which is where she has now returned to - in a very close-knit family with two sisters and a brother. Juliette and her sisters were always heavily encouraged to pursue their own careers and to be financially independent and she recalls she never questioned whether or not she would go to university but just saw it as a natural progression. Interestingly, all three sisters went on to become lawyers. Juliette admits that even though she always thought she wanted to be a lawyer, she never really understood exactly what it entailed and feels very fortunate that she loved it from day one, not really believing that she was actually being paid to do something she was enjoying so much. Juliette has been working in environmental law since she began her career, not by a deliberate choice but because she was assigned to a partner whose specialisation it happened to be, so through happenstance she found her calling and her vocation.  

“Environmental law is a very tangible sector. You are dealing with real life scenarios and you can do work that is meaningful. It also is something that goes across so many areas of law; litigation, transactional, advice. In New Zealand there has been a push for reform which is what caused me to shift from private practice to government and I feel I can be a part of something that brings about positive change.”

What does Juliette feel is her greatest achievement?

“This may not be the answer that you expect, but for me it has been hard to maintain a law career and also to have a family. I am really happy that I have been able to achieve both without either of them suffering as a result of coming second to the other. It’s been challenging at times to accomplish that but I feel proud to have achieved it.”

Juliette “just” has three children. She made the decision not to have children until after she  became a partner which she says, despite the changes that are happening, is still hard for women to achieve and it was something she had to focus on very single mindedly. She saw how hard women have to work to make partner and knew if she was trying to do that with children, she would simply never see them. So she had to carefully map out her timeline to achieve both her ambitions.

Juliette is very much part of a new style of leadership; she talks of how when she first qualified, she was mentored and inspired by a female lawyer who had become a partner at a very young age.

“She was incredibly smart and managed to more than hold her own in what was a very male dominated, masculine environment. But what struck me was that she was also incredibly kind and lots of fun. She always remained true to herself as a woman and didn’t try to emulate the men around her. That has stuck with me throughout my own career; you can be a strong lawyer and leader but still be authentic. Women can bring different characteristics to the table.”

Juliette’s decision to move into government was driven by a desire to do something impactful; to really make a change through law reform that can benefit not just our generation, but future generations too.

“We get to a point where we realise it’s not all about us. That we can use our knowledge and experience to really make a difference. I want to look after the environment and I want to be part of the change that makes that happen. I want my children to be able to swim in the rivers, go fishing - that may sound a bit ‘pollyanna’ - but really isn’t that what we should all be striving for - a better world for the future?”

Juliette is no Pollyanna. She is a woman who is definitely working to make positive changes, to help protect our environment and, equally importantly, by the manner she is doing it, she is also changing our perception of what leadership is.

Maroulla Paul

March 2024