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Discrimination rife: LCA study


Cite as: April 2014 88 (04) LIJ, p.16

Intimidation, harassment and discrimination are common in the national legal profession, according to a landmark new study by the Law Council of Australia (LCA).

Launched in March, the National Attrition and Re-engagement Study (NARS) ( revealed that while both men and women experience very high levels of these negative behaviours, women are more likely than men to be affected.

Half of all female lawyers and one third of male lawyers have been bullied or intimidated in their current job, said the study.

Further, bullying, intimidation and aggression may be partly condoned in the context of the confrontational nature inherent in some aspects of legal work.

“Characteristics such as assertiveness, resilience, competitiveness and self-confidence are valued in the legal profession, but can be seen to extend to bullying and aggressive behaviour,” the report said.

It noted perpetrators were not limited to senior men. Examples of similar behaviour by some senior women in the profession were cited.

The study, the first of its kind in Australia, considered the drivers for the high rate of attrition of women from the legal profession. It identified barriers to remaining and progressing in the profession, options to address hurdles, the business case for gender diversity and best practice in this area.

Almost 4000 members of the legal profession were surveyed, including more than 80 who had in-depth interviews. The results provide a framework upon which the LCA and broader legal profession can progress a change agenda.

Other key findings of the study include:

  • Half of all women report gender discrim- ination – overt and subtle – compared to one in 10 men.
  • One in four women experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. A number of women disclosed their experiences of receiving unwanted advances, feeling objectified or being exposed to inappropriate sexual behaviour.
  • One in four women have been discriminated against due to family or carer responsibilities.

“For both male and female practitioners, these factors often contribute to degradation in work-life balance, which for many may become unsustainable. This finding is significant as it highlights the importance of flexible work practices that facilitate work-life balance across the profession (not just for working mothers),” according to the report.

That said, there was a perception of bias against women who adopt flexible working arrangements to balance family responsibilities.

“While a range of flexible working arrangements might be available . . . taking them up could have a negative impact on progression prospects. Particularly in larger private firms, study participants reported several negative impacts of utilising flexible working arrangements. These included being allocated unsatisfying work, being passed by for promotion, and dealing with colleagues’ assumptions that because they had accessed flexible working arrangements, their priorities lay outside work,” the report said.

One in three women expressed dissatisfaction with access to opportunity for promotion and advancement and their career progression compared to their expectations. Less than one in five men expressed dissatisfaction with these aspects of their current role and career to date.

More men in leadership positions was seen to contribute to the difficulty women had progressing.

“A number of women indicated that the prevalence of men in senior positions presented cultural barriers to their own progression. Whether conscious or unconscious, the role of favoritism, personal relationships and alliances in the promotion process was seen to potentially favour male candidates in workplaces led by fellow men. Many participants view large law firms in particular as being overly competitive (influenced perhaps by the inherently adversarial nature of legal work) with a male-dominated culture that is experienced as alienating by women.”

On the positive side, the study found legal practitioners enjoy the interesting and diverse nature of legal work. Its independence, autonomy, diversity and profile contributed to job satisfaction.

LIV president Geoff Bowyer said the survey results came as no surprise. “The scale and magnitude of this issue presents all lawyers with a huge challenge which requires urgent action. These damning results are simply unsustainable.

“The LIV will continue to champion the right of women to equal treatment and opportunity while educating members about the value of flexible work arrangements.”

In March, the LIV launched the fourth diversity group – LIVGender – following LIV Wominjeka, LIVout and LIVable.


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