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According to Merit?: Too much to ask?

Every Issue

Cite as: December 2014 88 (12) LIJ, p.82

Leading women shine a light on discrimination at the Australian Women Lawyers national conference. 

In October, Australian Women Lawyers (AWL) held their fifth national conference. AWL is the peak body for women lawyers associations throughout Australia, including Victorian Women Lawyers. The national conference – held biennially – attracts female (and a few brave male) lawyers from across the country.

It was a forum for sharing stories with practitioners grappling with the unique challenges and environments of their home states, be it the post-mining boom conditions in Western Australia, the impact of global firm mergers on the legal sector in the eastern states or the particular difficulties of enforcing intervention orders in the Northern Territory.

If it had been a men’s lawyers conference, these professionally relevant topics could have been exhaustively explored. But women lawyers have pressing concerns beyond knowing the latest evidentiary rules or how to build a practice using social media effectively and responsibly. Which often makes me wonder, what would our working lives be like if we had the same advantages as men and could simply focus on doing our jobs without ever having to question whether our gender is an issue and without having to wonder if discrimination is at play. Or is the truth really that we are just not good enough.

Former Victoria Police chief commissioner Christine Nixon lectured us in the kindest, gentlest, most good-humoured way possible, to know our worth, overcome our fears, remain true to our values and recognise the systemic barriers to our progression (like the famous literal wall she removed from the police obstacle course test so that more women could pass it).

Law Council of Australia (LCA) executive member Fiona McLeod SC talked in detail about the findings of the LCA’s 2014 National Attrition and Re-engagement Study (NARS) report, reminding us that the pay gap between men and women is at a 20 year high of 18.2 per cent. She invited us to think more broadly about the social context within which we work, proposing that deeply entrenched beliefs – perpetuated largely by the media – that girls and women are somehow less worthy than boys and men may be the reason it has been so hard to bridge this gap.

The remarkable Rabia Siddique, a Perth-born, former British Army legal officer, was a keynote speaker. She had the entire room transfixed by her larger-than-life story of being held hostage with a male army colleague while assisting in the rescue of two SAS soldiers from Iraqi insurgents in Basra. Her male colleague received a Military Cross for outstanding bravery, while Rabia’s part in the incident was covered up by the British Army and government. She brought a landmark discrimination case against the UK Ministry of Defence and won.

Conference delegates shared their more everyday stories of discrimination: the advocate told by a judge during a hearing that her maternity wear was inappropriate for court; the barrister negotiating with a senior male lawyer who called her “girly” instead of using her name; the solicitor who endured a work function at a topless bar.

Quiet conversations over drinks revealed other issues not formally broached as part of the conference: working flexibly instead of climbing the corporate ladder is great if you don’t mind sacrificing pay rises, long service leave and superannuation; universities that make money from over-enrolling law students should encourage them to think more realistically about their work prospects. But this is no comfort to the law graduate whose HECS bill is twice that of her arts graduate friends. The intense competition led to one firm telling her that thousands of others were lining up to replace her if she refused to work the long, family un-friendly hours they demanded.

Then there is the enduring complaint of having to bear the weight of household and carer duties, even if men are doing more than they did in the past. And there is only so much that can be outsourced. Unless embraced by both genders, no amount of workplace adjustment will encourage men to do more at home. Many women begrudgingly accept this state of affairs, figuring they’re better off being grateful for any help received. But the impact on their careers and their health is huge.

There were positives. Presenters from the law firms Justitia, Hive, and Keypoint Law demonstrated that new business structures could offer flexible and family-friendly environments and work/life benefits for all lawyers while delivering profits and a high quality service for clients.

But for me the take-home message was from Ms McLeod.

She posed the question: “What is our aspiration? What do we want it to look like?”

And this response: “We want it to be fair. We want a professional environment that fosters and rewards individual ability, application and integrity, free from discriminatory practices”.

Is that really so much to ask?


JOANNE BOWERS is a member of the Victorian Women Lawyers Work Practices Committee. The views expressed are her own and may not be shared by the VWL.

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