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According to Merit? Odd man out

Every Issue

Cite as: (2006) 80(12) LIJ, p. 86


Many women know what it’s like to be a minority in a male-dominated world – but just occasionally the tables are turned.

Be-beep.

I pick up my mobile to read the SMS.

“Hon, it’s 96 per cent women!”

I feel bad.

My partner is at a Partners in Business Luncheon jointly hosted by the Law Institute of Victoria (LIV), the Australian Institute of Management (AIM) and the Financial Services Institute of Australasia (Finsia).

He enjoys attending business breakfasts and lunches to hear successful leaders speak about their career paths. Accordingly, whenever I come across something that may interest him, I let him know.

A flyer for this one had landed on my desk and the line-up of speakers – leading executives in the legal, finance and management professions – looked impressive: Ros Grady, Partner in Charge, Mallesons Stephen Jaques; Jenny Fagg, Managing Director, Consumer Finance ANZ; and Carol Schwartz AM, Director, Highpoint Property Group.

Dutifully, I passed the flyer on.

Noting the topic was “Women in Leadership”, at the time of booking he queried whether it was a female-only event. He was assured it was not.

Be-beep.

I pick up my mobile. Another SMS.

“Make that 98 per cent!! 600 women and 5 blokes!”

Having suggested he attend, I feel responsible and tell a colleague.

She shrugs and says: “Welcome to life as a woman eh?”.

She’s right. While I have never been one of five women among 600 men (the closest I got to that was going to the State of Origin), I have been in many meetings, negotiations and work-related functions where I have been the only female in a room full of men. With a career path that has seen me work for a large Melbourne law firm and the banking and finance industry, I am certainly often in the minority.

As a junior lawyer it was confronting. But I quickly became accustomed to it. So much so that I no longer really notice.

I expect most female lawyers will have had similar experiences.

While the employment patterns of men and women have changed significantly over the past 25 years,[1] there is still a long way to go before being the sole female in a group of men is the exception rather than the rule.

ABS statistics reflect the increasing number of women entering the workforce. Over the past quarter of a century, the proportion of women in the workforce has increased from 40 per cent (of total women over 15 years of age) in 1979 to 53 per cent in 2004.[2]

And the nature of the work is changing. Women are increasingly moving away from their traditional roles in the workplace of secretary, nurse, cleaner or cashier in favour of careers in areas usually occupied by men.

It is widely known that female representation in undergraduate and graduate law programs across the country has exceeded 50 per cent for the past 20 years. In fact, in 2004 almost 60 per cent of the 2300 law undergraduates at Monash University were female.[3] At Melbourne University, it was much the same.

But while this equal gender balance is reflected at junior levels of the profession, this is not the case at the more senior levels. While some disparity between the sexes is inevitable around child-rearing age, the disparity is too significant to be that alone.

Accordingly, as a junior or mid-level lawyer, chances are you will be working with predominantly male partners or senior lawyers for predominantly male clients.

The tables are rarely turned . . .

Later that evening, as we’re walking towards home, I query him about the lunch.

He admits being initially totally out of his comfort zone. “I didn’t realise there were so many professional women!”.

I recount my colleague’s remark about gaining some appreciation of what it is like to be female in a largely male-dominated business world.

He stops suddenly and turns to look at me.

“You’ve been the only female? Really? But I’d have thought these days . . . Really? These days?”

He is genuinely shocked.

“Yes,” I reply. “Even these days.”

And while he may forget the content of the event, the identities of the speakers and the women on his table – he certainly won’t forget the experience of being the odd man out.


MICHELLE TESORIERO is a corporate lawyer at Esanda Finance Corporation, part of the ANZ Group of companies. The views expressed in this article are entirely those of the author.


[1] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australian Social Trends: Trends in women’s employment 2006 (4102.0).

[2] The growth has been mainly in part-time employment: 14 per cent of all women in 1979 to 24 per cent in 2004. The growth in full-time over the same period was: 26 per cent in 1979 to 29 per cent in 2004. The overall proportion of men who were employed decreased from 74 per cent to 68 per cent over the same period.

[3] “The Law Report” in Melbourne Magazine, August 2004, issue 21, p13.

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