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"Boys' club" still entrenched in legal profession

By Karin Derkley

Discrimination Women's Rights 


It was a “shocking experience” reading a report that showed the prevalence of disrespect for women and the persistence of male entitlement in the legal sector, Court of Appeal president Chris Maxwell said in an LIV webinar this week.

The LIV co-hosted the webinar with Women’s Legal Service Victoria to report on the Starts With Us survey of almost 300 legal and justice professionals’ experiences and observations of gender inequality in the workplace.

Justice Maxwell said reading the report made him “feel ashamed to belong to a highly educated well-remunerated profession which is so poor on making human rights a reality for women".

"Even though I’ve been working with lawyers for the past two or three years it still pulls me up short to read these stories of what women are experiencing in different parts of their work in the law."

Justice Maxwell said that, “given we’ve been aware of the changing face of the legal profession and the increasing participation of women in the law for decades now, I thought we’d be much better at this than we seem to be".

For a while now the legal profession had committed itself in policy terms to gender equality at the institutional level and the law firm and Bar Council level, he said.

"But this report shows starkly and clearly that day-to-day these policies haven’t made much of a difference.

"The kind of boys' club atmosphere described in the report was described in a report for the Victorian Bar 25 years ago. That tells me there is a very entrenched culture that is very persistent – and it’s unacceptable,” he said.

"We men seem to have a very strong sense of our own entitlement, whether (it's in terms of) dominating the conversation, making inappropriate sexual remarks or, worst of all, making uninvited sexual approaches."

Legal Services Commissioner Fiona McLeay said she was disappointed but not surprised by the findings of the report.

"When I started in my role, a number of people approached me and suggested the issue of sexual harassment in the profession was something I should take up as part of this role. So I wasn’t surprised when the paper came out and confirmed this really was an issue in the profession."

Discrimination, sexual harassment and gender stereotyping have been issues for a long time, she said. "And there’s been a lot of legislation that proscribes that conduct and there’s been a lot of work done. So it's disappointing to see that it is still prevalent."

That was particularly the case for the legal profession, Ms McLeay said. "We hold ourselves to high standards, we have a public role in the community as officers of the court, we administer justice, and uphold and maintain the rule of law.

“(This) undermines perceptions of our profession and our credibility that we’ve still got these issues happening," she said.

Slater and Gordon principal lawyer Naty Guerrero-Diaz said the report was "grim reading but it's important to go through the detail. It's both sad and affirming to see it in writing in this way."

It was essential the legal sector made a commitment to changing the culture, she said. "The danger is that we don’t implement change, and that that culture and that behaviour continues in a way that is insidious."

"Policies are great but that doesn’t necessarily lead to a change in behaviour."

Justice Maxwell said men in the legal profession needed to open their eyes and ears "and inform yourself by reading reports like this about what’s going on".

"You may not be part of the problem but you have to be part of the solution. If inappropriate things are happening we can’t stay silent or this will keep happening.

“Women need to hear us as their allies, and men who misbehave need to hear us disown them."

There are unique challenges for the legal sector and the justice system, Ms McLeay acknowledged. Part of the problem was the hierarchical and structured nature of the justice system. “That can easily reinforce and perpetuate those stereotypes and structural barriers.”

“But they are challenges I think we are capable of responding to given the calibre of the people involved.”

As the regulator, part of the VLSB’s role was to talk about the kind of profession lawyers wanted to be part of, she said.

“(Banking royal commissioner) Kenneth Hayne said we need to think, not in terms of: ‘can I do this?', but: 'should I do this?’ (It’s about) behaving in a way that upholds the high standards of the profession, that builds public trust and confidence."

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