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Opinion: Tackling gender inequality

Opinion: Tackling gender inequality

By Justice Chris Maxwell

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There are reasons to be optimistic about awareness, engagement and leadership – key areas on which real change depends.

“When I was at school, we were told that girls could achieve anything they wanted to. After two years in the law, I have realised that it’s not true.”

How shocking for a young woman embarking on a legal career to be so quickly disillusioned. That statement was made to me in 2015, when I began a series of consultations with barristers and solicitors about gender inequality at the request of the then Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner Kate Jenkins. Her challenge to me and to other men in senior positions was to “step up” and support the efforts women have been making for decades to promote gender equality.

My consultations since 2015 have served to reinforce the scale and persistence of the difficulties faced by women in the law, ranging from the denial of fair opportunities to blatant discrimination and sexual harassment. Appearance statistics published on the Court of Appeal website show that the percentage of female counsel with speaking parts in the Court of Appeal remains stubbornly low, especially in civil appeals. And successive surveys across the profession confirm that sexual harassment is endemic.

But there are, I think, reasons for cautious optimism. There are signs of progress in each of the key areas on which real change depends: awareness, engagement and leadership.

As to awareness, we seem finally to be paying attention to these fundamental issues, not just in our profession but in the wider community. Crucial to this growing awareness is that those affected by gendered mistreatment are speaking out and being heard. It is also significant that we now have a range of published data – for example, about equitable briefing – that provides a clear picture of how much remains to be done.

On a smaller scale, discussions between male and female lawyers can dramatically improve awareness. In the meetings of “advocates for change”, women have felt safe to speak frankly about their experiences, and the effect on the men has been quite profound. As one female participant said, “I felt many of our male colleagues had their eyes opened to the different experiences of women”. And awareness then becomes a spring to action: “What can I do to help remove the obstacles faced by women in our profession?”

As to engagement, I have been struck by the level of commitment of both senior and junior lawyers. There is a unity of purpose, an impatience with the current state of affairs and an eagerness to find new solutions which is inspirational. 

As to leadership, both the courts and the profession have taken much stronger public positions on these issues in the last couple of years. I refer, of course, to the strong action taken by the High Court and the Federal Circuit Court to deal with allegations of sexual harassment by judicial officers and the strong commitment of Victorian courts to implement the recommendations of the recent Szoke report on sexual harassment in Victorian courts.

And, in a welcome recent development, the LIV has adopted a Charter for the Advancement of Women in the Legal Profession. This is a landmark document, reflecting the commitment both of the LIV’s leadership and of senior lawyers in the solicitors’ branch to the eradication of gendered inequality and mistreatment. 

As with the Law Council of Australia’s equitable briefing policy, the first step will be for law firms to sign up to the Charter. A firm that signs up will send a powerful message to its own staff and to the profession at large that it wants to be a leader in the advancement of women in the law.

Public commitments are, of course, worth little unless backed up with real action. The true challenge for all of us is to give effect to the principles we espouse, to make ourselves accountable for ensuring that there is no gap between policy and practice. ■


Justice Chris Maxwell is president of the Victorian Court of Appeal. 


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