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Law targets diversity

News

Cite as: June 2013 87 (6) LIJ, p.30

Gender quotas may be the way to boost equality in the profession.

A voluntary diversity code could soon be a feature of the Victorian legal profession and gender targets the norm in law firms. The initiatives are seen as ways to increase diversity in the law and commit firms to best practice in equality, diversity and inclusion. They were central to the discussion at the LIV diversity and inclusion roundtable hosted by Clayton Utz on 22 March.

Members of the legal profession discussed the pros and cons of a diversity code and the benefits were seen to outstrip any perceived disadvantage.

Law Society of England and Wales (LSEW) president Lucy Scott-Moncrieff was guest speaker at the roundtable and she spoke of the society’s own fledgling code.

Launched three years ago, the LSEW’s Diversity and Inclusion Charter is a public commitment by law firms, regardless of size, to develop and implement best practice in equality, diversity and inclusion as employers, providers of legal services, purchasers of goods and services and as members of society.

Ms Scott-Moncrieff reported 78 large law firms and 107 small law firms had signed up to the charter. More than 70 per cent had shown improvements based on an annual eight-point self-assessment process. Flexibility was a key issue, especially for women solicitors.

Diversity was looked at from all perspectives at the roundtable and attendees agreed that diversity is necessary for the vitality of the legal profession now and in the future.

Organised by the LIV’s diversity taskforce, the roundtable was held to develop strategies to increase and promote diversity in the profession.

About 40 people attended the one-day event which LIV president Reynah Tang opened, telling attendees he was the first president in the LIV’s 154-year history with an Asian background.

Mr Tang said while there had been a shift with many diversity initiatives already implemented by law firms, the profession was still dominated by men of similar cultural and educational background and this needed to change to better reflect the overall makeup of the profession and the community.

A starting point for the day’s discussion was defining diversity – the characteristics, visible and invisible, that make individuals different from each other, including religion, race, ethnicity, language, gender, sexual orientation and disability. Diversity also encompassed educational and socio-economic background, geographical location and marital status.

Attendees were asked to nominate why diversity was important from a business point of view. Brand and reputation were cited, as was employee engagement, diversity of ideas, client expectation, government tendering criteria, financial performance enhancement and an obligation to get it right for future generations of lawyers.

Having established what diversity was and why it was important, participants discussed challenges to achieving it. Beyond an ingrained resistance to change, it was agreed there was a lack of leadership on diversity but also ill-fitting job design, limited flexibility, revenue models, unconscious bias and behaviours, stereotypes and myths.

An inhibitor to greater diversity pointed out by Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (VEOHRC) acting commissioner Karen Toohey was the reluctance among women lawyers to report instances of discrimination and sexual harassment for fear of negative repercussions.

Representatives of Clayton Utz, Herbert Smith Freehills and Allens reported on what their firms were doing to promote diversity. Clayton Utz litigation and dispute resolution managing partner Brigitte Markovic said in 2015 the firm would introduce targets for the retention of women, particularly those returning from parental leave, and for the promotion of women into senior roles.

“We recognise that many women can face particular challenges during their careers which men may not, and that they can benefit from tangible forms of support to help them succeed,” Ms Markovic said.

“Ultimately we want to create an environment in which all our people, women and men, feel that they have every opportunity to succeed and are valued for their unique contributions.”

Ms Markovic said the legal landscape had changed and the number of female graduates was equal to or exceeded the number of male graduates joining law firms.

“As a result, firms recognise that they have to create career paths that can be embraced by both men and women.”

GENDER REPORTING

Law firms will be able to see what their competitors are doing with staff under new gender reporting requirements.

The requirements for employers of 100 or more employees came into effect on 1 April.

For the first time, employers will be required to provide data on the number of men and women in a workplace, what roles they fill and how much they are paid. Employers will also be required to provide information on availability of flexible working options and whether sex-based harassment and discrimination prevention strategies or policies are in place.

“These are the things that really count in terms of measuring the experiences of women and men in Australian workplaces,” Federal Minister for the Status of Women Julie Collins said.

“Employers will be able to see what is really happening in their workplace, compare themselves to competitors in their industry and develop strategies in their own way.

“The reporting requirements strike the right balance as we try to drive the cultural change necessary to achieve gender equality in the workplace.”

The requirements of employers under the new Workplace Gender Equality Act, which was passed by Parliament last November, were strengthened after consultation with business groups, individual employers and unions.

Funding of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, a resource for employers, has been almost doubled.

For more information visit: www.fahcsia.gov.au, www.wgea.gov.au.

NUMBERS COUNT

Women are getting closer to dominating the national legal profession – numerically if not in seniority – according to newly reported figures.

Research by the NSW Law Society indicates that the number of solicitors in that state is increasing at such a rate that a female-dominated profession nationally is not far off.

In the past 20 years, female solicitors have been joining the profession three times faster than men in NSW. In Victoria too, female practitioners dominate in the 20-30 and 31-40 age brackets. But after that, they are conspicuous by their absence.

The number of female partners remains stubbornly low compared to men. The report “Changing the Rules: The experiences of female lawyers in Victoria”, published by the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human rights Commission last year, reported only 21 per cent of partners in Australian law firms are women.

In other new research from the NSW Law Society, it was found women lawyers shy away from becoming barristers because they believe the Bar is sexist. In its Career Intentions Survey, conducted between August and November last year, 17 per cent of female law students said they believed the Bar was male-dominated and discriminatory and they would not pursue a career as a barrister.

At the 11 April launch, keynote speaker Acting Justice Jane Mathews said women studying law outnumbered men; it was what happened after university that was problematic.

“We are well into the 21st century and women are still significantly under-represented in most senior areas of the profession, such as partners in law firms, women at the bar and barristers taking silk and most areas of the judiciary,” Justice Mathews said.

GENERATION GAP

Older women – 45-plus – are underemployed and underutilised, according to a new study from Diversity Council Australia (DCA).

The study “Older women matter: Harnessing the talents of Australia’s older female workforce” says compared to men, women have lower labour market participation rates. Australia lagged substantially behind comparable countries in this regard.

Benefits associated with older workers include sustained job performance, high motivation and reliability, improved staff retention and accumulation of experience, knowledge and skills over working lives, according to the study.

Further, increasing older women’s labour participation rates to match men’s could increase per capita GDP growth by 1.5 per cent.

With life expectancy at 84 years for women and 70 per cent of women rating their health as good to excellent, many older women are at their peak. For many, this is changing expectations about the trajectory of their working lives, says the study.

“Smart employers are no longer making assumptions about their older workers’ retirement plans and are instead ensuring they develop talent across their workforce, inclusive of all age and gender demographics,” said the study, which was released in May.

WOMEN’S SURVEY

The most comprehensive survey yet undertaken about women in the law has been launched by the Law Council of Australia (LCA). The “National Attrition and Re-engagement Study” (NARS) is aimed at keeping women in the law. The survey will collect data about men and women in the law, which will then guide future profession policy on how better to retain its members.

LCA president Joe Catanzariti said when the survey was complete a report would be produced outlining practical measures that could be implemented to address the causes of high attrition rates among women lawyers, and re-engage women lawyers who have left the profession.

“Statistics show women are leaving their careers and not re-engaging in the legal profession at significantly higher rates than their male counterparts,” Mr Catanzariti said.

“The responses obtained through the national survey will provide the foundation for the implementation of future policies aimed at reducing attrition rates and improving the re-engagement levels of female lawyers. Female lawyers should be able to participate in the profession to the fullest extent and the NARS project will provide a significant step towards ensuring the profession has the correct processes in place to better support its female cohort.”

Victorian Bar chair Fiona McLeod SC welcomed the survey. “This data will form the foundation of policy development across the profession at a national level, but will also reveal any region-specific trends that need to be addressed by state and territory peak bodies,” she said.

There are equal numbers of men and women doing the Bar Readers’ course but overall about 26 per cent of practising barristers are women and at the senior level of silks, only 10 per cent are women.

Members of the profession – current and former – are encouraged to participate in the survey. More information is available at www.lawcouncil.asn.au.

“Ultimately, the aim is to arrest the trend for women to leave the profession, never to return, and look at how we can implement any required changes to ensure the profession truly embraces diversity. We will be richer for it,” Ms McLeod said.

Carolyn Ford

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