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Women lawyers frustrated by slow progress

Women lawyers frustrated by slow progress

By Karin Derkley

Women's Rights 

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After years of women lawyers patiently waiting their turn, it is clear the pipeline they were promised is still not delivering, this year’s Women's Legal Breakfast heard.

The panel, which featured barrister Fiona McLeod SC, VLA CEO Louise Glanville, Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins and Slater and Gordon principal lawyer Naty Guerrero-Diaz,and was moderated by Women’s Legal Service CEO Joanna Fletcher, voiced frustration at the lack of progress for women in the legal profession.

Ms Glanville said she had become increasingly annoyed at how slow progress has been for women in the profession. "There has always been backlash [against women's progress in the profession], but it offends me more greatly than it did 25 or 20 years ago. There are so many parts of the legal profession where recognition is token."

Ms Jenkins said was she was the generation “this was going to be fixed in – and it's still not fixed.

"People say change takes time. But actually change takes action. And as long as no one is doing anything different there’s no change."

Law firms copped criticism from the panel for having held up progress for women, despite them now making up more than half of lawyers, and 60 per cent of law graduates. Just 25 per cent of partners are women, and briefing rates for women barristers are still low.

Ms Jenkins said when she started in her role, she was "dismayed" by the legal sector. The men in charge of the sector "have a very arrogant complacent view about this issue,” she said. “Their attitude is: she isn’t ready yet, she hasn't done the hard yards yet, you have to wait your turn".

The first thing that needed to be debunked is the notion that workplaces will reward effort and merit, Ms McLeod said.

"If you look at a bunch of law school graduates going into the workplace, within five or six years the men have accumulated a list of cases and opportunities that are deemed meritorious and the women haven't," she said. "What is going on there?"

It is not enough to point at "individual superwomen who've made it and say, look you've had a chief justice - get over it," she said.

"We need to debunk the myth that the men are more meritorious just because they played in the first 11 or first 18 or they went to this school or their father knows someone else. [Or is it] because they had this amazing opportunity in their first couple of years to be front of house while the woman did what she thought was the loyal thing and worked back of house on the three-year discovery project."

Law firms have pushed back against equitable briefing, claiming there were not enough women barristers with the expertise for a particular field or no women generally available to do that work, Ms McLeod said. “I said to them: if you look hard enough you will find women who have expertise across a wide range.”

Kate Jenkins said that when law firms were asked to commit to 30% of briefing going to women barristers on the basis of their representation at the Bar, "they said: 'no we can’t do that – we can only do 15 or 20%'."

"What they are in fact doing is actually setting a target of 80% men and saying it’s okay to discriminate against women," she said.

To meet targets, law firms had also tended to send women low paid or pro bono work, "which was why we introduced the notion of fees into the targets as well", Ms McLeod said.

Law firms needed to think about who they were regularly briefing and if they weren't briefing women they should ask why not?, she said.

"I understand people are reluctant to brief people they don’t know, and that translates into a sense of risk. But if you don't know women you need to make it your job to meet women and find out what their skillset is and make it your job to give them a go. That’s the only way we’re going to translate these policies into a reality."

"We are just asking for women to be seen for what they do," said Ms Glanville. "We have to keep up the fight."

Photo by Vanessa Shambrook

Pictured: Women’s Legal Service CEO Joanna Fletcher, VLA CEO Louise Glanville, Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins, Slater and Gordon principal lawyer Naty Guerrero-Diaz and Fiona McLeod QC

 


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