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Call for workplace action

Call for workplace action

By Sophie Lefebvre and Vanessa Shambrook

Women's Rights 


Keeping the spirit of International Women’s Day alive all year.

This year’s Victorian Women Lawyers’ (VWL) Dame Roma Mitchell lunch featured guest speaker Professor Gillian Triggs who gave a speech celebrating the success of gender equality to date, but noted how far we still have to go to achieve true equality.

Here are some tips to keep the spirit of International Women’s Day alive year-round and be an ally to women in law.

Understand the causes of gender inequality

Gender based discrimination against women occurs directly and indirectly in the legal sector. However the root causes of discrimination and inequality remain the same – unfair gender roles, normalising of abuse and harassment, and a tendency to undermine women in order to exert control over them. In order to tackle these issues, all people, those who identify as a particular gender and those who do not, will be required to understand and assist in tackling them.

See something, say something

For many women the feeling of inequality in the workplace undermines their capacity to raise complaints regarding workplace discrimination.

We’ve all been there. A colleague (or client) makes a vaguely offensive joke or comment and you feel the need to half-heartedly laugh or look away because you just want to leave the situation. Research conducted by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) in 2018 found that sexual harassment is on the rise in Australia.1 The AHRC found that prevalence of workplace sexual harassment increased from 21 per cent in 2012 to 33 per cent in 2018. Despite the increase in sexual harassment there has not been an increase in calling it out. The AHRC reported that 40 per cent of incidents of workplace sexual harassment were witnessed by a co-worker, however in only 27 per cent of incidents a bystander intervened.

In the interest of workplace harmony, sometimes it seems easier to ignore a sexist comment, opting to console the victim after the fact. However, by making it known that you will not excuse disrespectful behaviour towards women, you can signal the appropriate behaviour and empower others to speak up against harassment.

Listen and amplify

A recent study found that credit for ideas at work is something men receive more than women. “We found that those who speak up can gain the respect and esteem of their peers, and that increase in status made people more likely to emerge as leaders of their groups,” explained lead author Sean R Martin in the Harvard Business Review. However, this effect is only true for men, not women 2

You may have heard of “mansplaining” but have you heard of “hepeating”? Coined by astronomer and physics professor Nicole Gugliucci, the term is used to describe a situation where a woman puts forward an idea only to have it repeated back to her by a man. This behaviour is also true for people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, who have reported being subject to this type of treatment.3

This phenomenon was famously noted by White House staffers during the Obama administration, who devised a clever strategy to overcome it.4 This strategy is called “amplification”, which simply requires an ally to acknowledge the input of their colleague by listening to and repeating what has been said, and providing credit to the person who came up with the idea. When a woman (or any person) puts forward an idea in a meeting, make sure to repeat it back and give credit.

Be a mentor or a sponsor

Women’s career progression is severely impacted by the cumulative effect of gender biases and assumptions about women’s capabilities or commitment to their careers, especially around child bearing age, while parenting or working flexibly. Furthermore, in many workplaces there is an unconscious bias towards a perceived notion that men are better lawyers, by virtue of having traditional masculine attributes. In order to remove these underlying assumptions and stereotyping, many women benefit from having a sponsor or a mentor to support their career progression.

Is there a woman in your firm or organisation who you think has the potential to flourish with the right advice and guidance? Do you have the capacity to be someone’s advocate, to give your time to provide support and advice? Mentors offer advice and time. Sponsors are individuals with power within a firm or organisation who not only advise but can facilitate meetings and introductions, using their connections and credibility to advance their mentee’s career.

Want to know more?

VWL aims to assist female lawyers in achieving a satisfying, successful professional life whatever their particular and personal definition of success might be. We encourage all members of the wider Victorian legal profession to sign up and participate in our many events and projects. More information about VWL can be found on our website

Sophie Lefebvre and Vanessa Shambrook are executive committee members of Victorian Women Lawyers.

1 Australian Human Right Commission, Everyone’s Business: Fourth national survey on sexual harassment in Australian workplaces, (2018).

2 Harvard Business Review, “Research: Men Get Credit for Voicing Ideas, but Not Problems. Women Don’t Get Credit for Either”, (2 November 2017).

3 The Independent, “What is hepeating?” (29 November 2018).

4 Washington Post, “How a White House women’s office strategy went viral”, (25 October 2016)


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