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According to merit?: The award nobody wants to earn

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Cite as: (2004) 78(10) LIJ, p. 79

Law firms need to address sexist behaviour if they want to avoid featuring in next year’s Ernie Awards.

So what do you do with sexist comments and behaviour? You enter them in the battle of the sexists[1] annual “Ernie Awards”.[2]

This year, the Golden Ernie went to a Toohey’s beer advertisement which showed Wallaby supporters holding up banners saying “Boys, if you win you can have our sisters”.[3]

The awards’ organiser and Legislative Council of NSW president Dr Meredith Burgmann commented that although the nominations this year included a large portion of sporting misogynists, men were getting better – or the really bad ones were dying.[4] Perhaps this means fewer nominations in the comments categories.

However, Merit attended a seminar recently and heard various examples of law firm behaviour which would easily make the list of Ernie Awards nominations.

Constructive troublemaking

There are many law firms which pride themselves on implementing equal opportunity or anti-discrimination policies in their workplaces. Yet, in some of those same law firms partners joke at meetings about trying to guess which recently appointed female senior associate will get pregnant first.

They also continuously foster and promote their male solicitors to senior positions, dismissing criticism from their female solicitors, and appear content with the number of women in their firms, even though the majority remain in junior positions.

These firms then simplistically blame “other” life choices when the women leave.

Yet the women who do stay and try to make a difference are often labelled troublemakers and are isolated, even if successful.

On 26 August 2004, Victorian Women Lawyers and Feminist Lawyers presented a “Constructive troublemaking” seminar with a specific focus on gender discrimination in the workplace to address the issues faced by female lawyers pursuing their careers.

The seminar presented effective strategies for dealing with sexism and gender discrimination. The speakers included Victorian Law Reform Commission CEO Padma Raman, Professor Felicity Hampel SC, special counsel Sarah Rey and University of Melbourne law professor Jenny Morgan.

The speakers shared not only their experiences as junior practitioners working towards seniority, but also words of wisdom and hindsight from their successful senior positions.

Ms Raman illustrated the importance of the intersection of race, class, age and gender in understanding identity and discrimination. She called on women to draw on their daily experiences of sexism and racism to build strong coping mechanisms and effect changes within their workplaces.

Professor Hampel entertained the audience with stories and examples of her own constructive troublemaking. She encouraged legal practitioners to build relationships with supportive male and female mentors, network with like-minded professionals and, above all, not compromise.

The secret to constructive troublemaking, according to Professor Hampel, was consistency and choosing the right strategy for the desired effect and goal.

Ms Rey echoed this advice and said she did not believe the “trickle up” effect of change had anywhere near arrived, despite large numbers of women entering the legal profession. After outlining strategies for change she encouraged women to persist and make “trouble” but to ultimately be prepared to offer solutions.

Professor Morgan concluded the seminar by cementing the recurring themes of creating networks, support from mentors, persistence, and strategy. Professor Morgan also highlighted the importance of supporting colleagues by pointing out that it was often easier to act on injustice in the workplace when acting on someone else’s behalf. And to the more senior practitioners she said “don’t be one of those women who say ‘ ... in my day, we put up with the harassment, we raised all seven children and never missed a day’s work’ ... that is, don’t pull up the ladder after you’ve made it”.

Where are the female million-dollar silks?

Chris Merritt’s article “Million-dollar silks off the list”[5] reported on the federal government spending on legal services from senior and junior barristers between 2002 and 2004.

Apart from lamenting the lack of clear description of what the fees were actually for, the author points out that “some of the surprises on the list are the relatively small amounts paid to high-profile silks”.

Yet the author fails to be surprised by the fact that only two of the barristers on the list appear to be women. One at the bottom of the list, the other eighth from the bottom.

Merit was not the only reader who noticed this “surprise”. Women Barristers’ Association convenor Samantha Marks pointed out the one very clear aspect on the legal spend list – the lack of women.[6]

Ms Marks noted that the 46 barristers listed received $5,533,741 in federal work over the past two years.[7] Of that sum, the two women listed earned $9484 between them – a proportion of 0.17 per cent. Given that women make up 14 per cent of the NSW Bar and 19 per cent of the Victorian Bar, the discrepancy in these statistics is extremely startling.

It is yet another example of the urgent need for the federal government to incorporate the equal opportunity briefing policy into government contracts for the supply of legal services.[8]


BARBARA WATROBA is a solicitor with Phillips Fox. The views expressed in this article are entirely those of the author.

merit@liv.asn.au


[1] Andrew Hornery and Bonnie Malkin, “Battle of the sexists”, Sydney Morning Herald, 19 August 2004.

[2] Amanda Keller interview with Dr Burgmann on ABC’s Mondo Thingo, see http://www.abc.net.au/thingo/txt/s1180534.htm.

[3] “‘Sexist’ beer ad takes Golden Ernie gong”, see http://www.abc.net.au/news/newsitems/200408/s1180909.htm.

[4] See note 1 above.

[5] Chris Merritt, “Million-dollar silks off the list”, Australian Financial Review, 13 August 2004, p55.

[6] Letters to the editor, “Brief barristers on merit, not gender”, Australian Financial Review, 20 August 2004, p71

[7] Three of these names were listed as chambers.

[8] Merit thanks Samantha Marks for her input.

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