Issue 131: November 2018
What needs to change in the legal profession so women can thrive?
This year marks the one-hundred-year anniversary of women in law in Australia. To celebrate this important milestone, and to acknowledge the changes that still need to be made for women’s participation in the legal profession to be fully embraced and supported, we asked four inspirational legal practitioners ‘what needs to change in the legal profession so that more women can thrive professionally and personally?’
Leah Cameron, Principal Solicitor, Marrawah Law
There is no doubt that the increasing number of women in the legal profession is bringing much needed cultural change but there is still a long way to go before women have the same opportunities and careers as men. Despite women making up two-thirds of law graduates across Australia, only 10% occupy senior positions. There are clearly a number of reasons for this, not least continued gender-based discrimination and unconscious bias against women. The fact that half the women in the legal profession reported experiencing discrimination in a 2014 Law Council Report underscores the need for systemic change in our profession so that more women can thrive professionally and personally.
As the mother of a three-year-old and a newborn, I am particularly focused on the detrimental effect the decision to have a family can have on women’s careers. Women continue to provide the primary care for their children and families. This means that they are much more likely than men to take time out of their workplace during the birth of their children and work part-time when their children are young. These career breaks are common and costly. Family responsibilities are the basis of a significant structural form of discrimination against women. Their fragmented work pattern may mean that women are excluded from work that will extend their skills and advance their professional development. Senior (often male) partners may view this as a lack of career commitment. It can take years to make up this lost time, if ever, seriously limiting women’s opportunities for promotion and career advancement.
As the owner of my own practice, I am fortunate that I can work flexibly. I fit my work around my children, take my baby into the office and work from home when necessary. I can leave early to pick up my three-year-old or attend events at her day care centre. This work-home balance ensures that I can continue to work effectively and with the support of my staff and partner.
These changes are occurring across the corporate, non-government and government sectors, but in the law profession, the change is too slow. Flexible work arrangements for both parents, supported return to work programs so women stay in touch with the workplace after the birth of their baby, and part-time and working from home options are all becoming standard practice in Australian workplaces. In my view, instituting routine flexible work arrangements are the key change required for women to thrive in the law profession. Not only will it ensure that high-quality lawyers are not lost to the profession, it will increase the number of women in senior roles as well as the number of male lawyers who are better fathers to their children.
Nicky Friedman, Director of Community Engagement, Allens
Women, like men, need a working environment that provides opportunity, rewards achievement and values individuals’ mental health and well-being, including making it possible for people to thrive professionally at the same time as they participate fully in family life and in their communities. In order for this to become reality, first we need impartial and transparent decision making at all stages of recruitment and promotion in all quarters relevant: law firms, the bar, the judiciary, government and in-house hiring. When people are appointed and promoted solely on merit, without reliance on personal networks or through processes susceptible to bias, women do well.
Secondly, we need law firms and other employers to complement the rhetoric on inclusion and mental health with genuine measures that make working life sustainable for human beings: an environment of genuine respect with zero tolerance for any form of discrimination or harassment, an expectation of reasonable working hours for all, a genuine and followed through commitment to flexibility. Making partner or General Counsel or professor or QC should not require a suspension of reasonable family life – those promotions should be based partly on candidates’ embodiment of good management practices, including modelling a sustainable lifestyle.
Male leaders need to do more than champion change – they need to embody change by taking parental leave when they have babies, actively shouldering shared responsibility for children, elderly relatives, sick relatives and communicating this to those around them. For workplaces to be places that enable us to be our best selves, they need to be places where we are valued for who we are – all of us – our gender and faith and culture, our outside work responsibilities, our social values. Finally, to thrive, we need the chance to continue to learn and to be supported in ongoing professional education and to contribute our skills and experience to our community – as lawyers this is a particularly strong need but fortunately, one that is relatively easily satisfied by an availability of appropriate pro bono work.
Geetha Nair, National Manager, Pro Bono Services and Senior Executive Lawyer, Australian Government Solicitor
In the case of Bebb v Law Society, the UK Court of Appeal upheld the Law Society’s ban on women working as lawyers with Lord Justice Phillimore remarking that “There has never been a suggestion that the office of attorney was one which was open to women”. Fortunately the legal profession has not, since the Bebb case, remained static, existing in a male-dominated ecosphere and the reality is there has been much movement to champion the place and role of women in the profession. This is evidenced by measures such as more flexible work arrangements, including home-based working, and the promotion of women lawyers to senior roles, not just within law firms, but also in government and corporations. However, there is still room for improvement.
More efforts may still be needed to make women a visible part of an organisation’s fabric and part of the decision making cohort. While diversity and inclusion policies may be good starting points, these need to be actively pursued with measures such as strong mentoring of women lawyers to help them navigate the professional riptides of a legal career, combined with women lawyers being given increased access to networking and business development opportunities, for example being part of an organisation’s team driving technological innovations which is an important part of the future of any legal group.
Improvements, however, are not just outward facing but also need to be contemplated from the inside. Women lawyers can sometimes be their worst saboteurs as they are often self-effacing and beset with doubts about their worth and abilities. Humility is certainly not a character flaw but, at times, it is vital that women come out of their shadows and openly celebrate their success, as this not only reinforces the positive attitude and behaviour needed when faced with the multitude challenges of working in a high pressured profession, but it also acts as a metronome to keep a sense of oneself and preserve one’s wellbeing. Recognising success also has a domino effect as it can reinvigorate and inspire the teams one works with, particularly younger female colleagues. In addition, saying the words “I want” is not something most women are used to doing but something women lawyers need to become comfortable saying as it is not egocentric but reinforces what one is capable of achieving.
The legal profession continues to transform and we, both male and female members of the profession, must all be agile in dealing with changes. Support and respect for, and collaboration with, each other, are key to the profession continuing to thrive.
Hannah Rose, Partner & Head of Pro Bono & Community, Sparke Helmore
The legal industry is one that is steeped in tradition and, in order to be relevant and sustainable for the future, we need to transform traditional ways of thinking. I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all approach and creating the right environment that allows people to thrive is not necessarily gender-specific.
When I think about what I need to thrive professionally, it’s about having the opportunity and support to reach my full potential, to explore new and better ways of doing things, and to help others. With regard to my personal life, I need a workplace that allows me the flexibility to spend time with the people who are important to me, and to do the other things that keep me happy and healthy.
Organisations that are ahead of the curve recognise that when they create the right environment, they can foster the careers of diverse and high-achieving individuals who, in turn, contribute to the success of their business and the community as a whole. A culture where managers are encouraged to understand the motivations and aspirations of each individual in their team, and create an environment that will allow them to thrive, will perform better.
Female leaders in the industry have a great opportunity to play a critical role in supporting other women – to make the path smoother for those who come after, to advocate for change and open the eyes of those who cannot see the barriers that still exist.
Sparke Helmore has a Diversity & Inclusion strategy that commits the firm to developing female talent and increasing gender representation in senior leadership roles and all decision-making forums. Gender representation on our board is now equal for men and women, and we have increased the representation of women in the partnership to 32%, with targets set to increase that figure. Our long-standing women’s network, Six Degrees, encourages and supports Sparke Helmore’s community of women by providing opportunities to help them grow professionally and personally through networking, leadership, mentoring and collaboration. These initiatives are helping our firm look to the future, and promote positive change so we can all bring our best to every aspect of our lives.
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