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According to Merit?: Beyond lip service

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Cite as: June 2014 88 (06) LIJ, p.85

Without the threat of consequences it is unlikely that employers will change their behaviour.

Sex discrimination commissioner Elizabeth Broderick said “discrimination has a cost for women, their families, to business and to the Australian economy and society as a whole,” following the Australian Human Rights Commission report Supporting Working Parents: Pregnancy and Return to Work National Review released in April that found half of all mothers experienced workplace discrimination.

Victorian Women Lawyers (VWL) and other women lawyer bodies have, for more than 20 years, advocated for cultural change in the legal profession to address discrimination and inequality facing women lawyers. VWL has attempted to answer the question as to why women leave the profession, and highlighted the benefits of retaining highly skilled and trained women within it.

Change driven by women, on behalf of women, however has been slow. Men still comprise the majority of decision makers at the board or partnership table.

Recognising the seriousness of this inequality, in 2012 the Law Council of Australia (LCA) commissioned a survey of Australia’s legal profession. The survey explored the drivers of attrition and identified ways to re-engage women. Many in the legal profession welcomed the result – the National Attrition and Re-engagement Study (NARS) launched in March.

The study confirms what previous studies have shown regarding women and their retention and progression within the profession. However, this study takes the issue of attrition into a more sophisticated realm by highlighting the unconscious bias and discrimination in what is still a male-dominated field.

The report shows that, overall, women lawyers are more dissatisfied than their male counterparts.

Women are unhappy with the assumptions made about them that because of their caring responsibilities, real or presumed, their priorities lie outside work. They say the result is being allocated less prestigious work and being passed over for promotion. Conversely, factors that encourage women to stay in the profession were found to include the interesting and diverse nature of legal work as well as strong relationships with their colleagues.

Most of the problems the report identified relating to career progression, retention and attrition stem from systemic issues such as a “male-dominated” culture, lack of leadership and strategy, unconscious bias, an entrenched inflexible business model, and limited transparency and accountability.

The report suggested that these factors need to be addressed at the systemic level.

At the NARS launch, LCA director and Australian Bar Association vice-president Fiona McLeod SC called for a rapid acceleration of change leading to a cultural revolution within 10 years. This however, can only be achieved if the profession and its current leaders are willing to be involved.

Currently there is no monitoring of behaviour, enforcement of policies or expectations to move equitable practices beyond lip service. It has been proposed that without the threat of consequences, it is unlikely that employers would genuinely change their behaviour. Despite current mandatory reporting to government agencies on gender indicators for firms with more than 100 employees, effective strategies to retain women lawyers must include senior management’s active support and visible monitoring of its firm’s culture, gender balancing initiatives, personal development planning for high-potential women, and encouragement of genuine flexible work practices for all staff.

The discussion paper suggests that it is time for the LCA, as the national voice of the profession, and its constituent bodies to monitor and publicise gender equity statistics.

Law firms, law societies and bar associations should also address conscious and unconscious bias, nurture and promote potential women leaders, and employ measures to improve female retention and leadership across the profession.

Anecdotal evidence is that the NARS report has been well received by law firms. Now we must become the champions of change. If equality within the legal profession is not clearly evident, then how can the profession espouse its commitment to upholding the principles of equity, fairness and justice?

The NARS report and discussion paper prepared by the LCA has hopefully kick-started the re-engagement of women lawyers to create a truly representational, democratic profession.


GEORGINA FROST with Jo Bowers and Mary Louise Hatch of Victorian Women Lawyers. The views expressed are their own and may not be shared by VWL.

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