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How to get gender equality in the law

How to get gender equality in the law

By Carolyn Ford



Not why but how to achieve gender diversity in the law was discussed by general counsel and industry leaders at a Thomson Reuters Legal event in Melbourne recently.

Speakers at “A Client’s Perspective: Gender Diversity and the path to success” were BlueScope Steel chief legal officer and company secretary Debra Counsell, Medibank senior legal counsel Ashley Johnson, and general counsel, author and speaker Claire Bibby. Maddocks partner and CEO Michelle Dixon moderated.

At BlueScope Steel since 2014 with global responsibility for legal, regulatory and governance matters, Ms Counsell is one of two women in its executive leadership team, the first two in the company’s history.

“It’s a big deal. We are making huge strides in this area. At that table, it is much easier to be a woman than at the table of a partnership full of men,” said Ms Counsell who worked for 25 years in partner and equivalent roles at global law firms.

“At BlueScope we are controlled by shareholders and they want action on this. There is incredible leadership from the top. At every board meeting I am part of, the first question is about safety. The second is diversity. It’s number two on the agenda. What every business [at Bluescope] has to do is put the stats up on the screen and show how many people were hired and how many of those were women. If there are not enough women hired, they are told to go back.”

Ms Counsell said she led by example at Bluescope and was open to ways of working flexibly. Dialling in to a meeting rather than attending in person was fine. Not working late for first-time parents was an expectation.

“You lead by your own example. I have twin boys, they are 12, so pretty busy. That’s the priority. Based on what I do, people who work with me don’t struggle to do what it takes to look after aging parents. We are completely open to everything. As long as I have people who are willing to do what it takes when required, I don’t mind.

“There are so many talented female lawyers out there, the ones I have working with me are as good as they get. The travesty is that the higher they go the less represented they are. That’s what needs to be fixed.”

Ms Counsell urged women lawyers to get a sponsor, and to grab criticism with both hands and work with it.

Thomson Reuters Legal managing director Jackie Rhodes said having family-friendly policies wasn’t enough.

“Leaders must actively promote the take-up of these initiatives and set a culture that genuinely supports women and men through major life transitions such as having a child,” Ms Rhodes said.

She supported sponsoring female talent, retaining and promoting women to leadership roles and women helping women who come after them.

In Australia, female partnership representation sits at 25 per cent, but drops to 18 per cent for equity partners.

In Thomson Reuters’ 2017 Women in Legal – diversity and inclusion report, respondents of both genders agreed on the need for internal mentoring/sponsorship and flexibility, but disagreed on hiring quotas and promoting female achievements.

Some rejected any action to support women or diversity and some thought workplace equality evolves naturally over time, or that no bias exists. Some suggested it was necessary for women to choose between a career and motherhood.

Most thought it was important to have flexible work options for both sexes, but 60 per cent of male respondents felt their jobs would be compromised if they worked from home or decided to have a family.

Thomson Reuters has committed to 40 per cent women in leadership roles by 2020, and to turning #TRChangeMakers, which asks leaders in business and law to urge individuals to take practical steps to achieve gender equality at the top of organisations, into a global campaign.

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