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A leading question

A leading question

By Anna Belgiorno-Nettis


Under-representation of women in top positions begins before practice. Most law graduates are females1 yet women fill less than 25 per cent of the legal profession’s senior positions.2 My research on a law student senior position suggests the imbalance starts earlier. Even before practice, there is a women and leadership issue. My research focuses on Victoria’s law student society (LSS) president position because LSSs are the official representative bodies of law schools. So, to be accurately representative, female presidency ratios would match female cohort ratios. Yet, at Victoria’s highest ranked law schools (Melbourne, Monash and Deakin University)3 whose cohorts are over 55 per cent female, 22 per cent or less of presidents have been women.4 There is under-representation of many student groups in LSS presidents. However, because women make up the majority of law cohorts, our under-representation deserves attention. Nominating only when needed 2015 Monash careers director Tess Birch was never contested for her LSS roles. Given her LSS experience and others’ encouragement, “[when] no one was going for president . . . I pretty much accepted I was going to do it”. When another male candidate showed interest, Ms Birch chose other opportunities over nominating. Similarly for 2014 Melbourne secretary Erin MacMullin, “the deciding reason [against nominating] was that there was someone else running who could do a good job". Meanwhile, at the LSSs with less competition for presidency there are more women presidents.5 For 2016 ACU president Mardi Grivas, “getting the role was not too competitive”. For 2016 RMIT president Elise Steegstra, the other potential candidate was not interested, so she ran uncontested. Victoria University’s 2016 woman president also ran unopposed. This pattern of women nominating for presidency when someone is needed to fill the role alludes to how presidency's appeal to many interviewed women is helping others. Ms MacMullin considered nominating to have an impact on the community. “It wasn’t about being the best president there ever was.” Ms Birch says, ‘If I [ran], the LSS would’ve been in good hands. I would’ve felt good about that.” 2015 Deakin competitions director Amy Mann would have – although did not – run “for the LSS’s continued success”. Community-centred motivation, according to 1987 Melbourne president – and 2015 Australian Bar Association president Fiona McLeod SC, is crucial to leadership. “Really wanting it is not why you should be doing a leadership role. I think you should [consider leadership] because you feel you can make a contribution. That might make younger women more comfortable in saying ‘here’s how I can make a contribution. I’m going to have a go’. ” The major disadvantage outweighing presidency appeal for many interviewed women was the time commitment. 2010 Melbourne president Romily Faulkner says, “It’s like running a small business”. Ms MacMullin says “It’s difficult to keep up your personal friendships”. Melbourne’s presidency often exceeds 30 hours per week.6 Ms Faulkner explains, “People weigh up time in comparison to other benefits, so perhaps [women] don’t perceive the position to have enough countervailing benefits in terms of achievable impact”. How do we make leadership’s benefits, for women, outweigh its negatives? We could change how leadership is defined. If we frame leadership around helping others, instead of ourselves, different people may see the role as worthwhile. Not seeing women leaders 2015 Monash president Jemima Roe explains how seeing a woman LSS president affected her. “I’d always wanted to run partly because I saw a female in the role in my first year.” Yet since 2010, only two women presidents at Victoria’s top three LSSs ever saw another woman president before nominating themselves. And since 2008, only 23 per cent of the people running for president have been women. According to Ms Mann, “It’s not that males are getting elected over females. It’s that females are not running". When women run for women-less leadership positions, they transform gender imbalances among those running, whether they get the position or not. What if we encourage and congratulate women for already considering leadership, irrespective of end results? As Ms McLeod says, encouragement is “a crucial thing . . . many women don’t think of themselves until [encouraged]”. Encouragement to nominate could change whether women consider leadership roles; and considering ourselves for such roles is a crucial step to obtaining them. Why it matters Unlike presidency, women LSS committee numbers are far more representative. 7 2010 Monash president Victoria Lanyon says this student leadership issue mirrors the professional one. “You’re basically dealing with your CEO level . . . that one top job.” Why have women in top LSS jobs? Presidents often decide their organisation’s focus and LSSs often have much financial and faculty support. Consequently a president’s focus can indirectly impact many student experiences. As a woman, I am inevitably more likely to prioritise gender imbalances. I am thrilled that, as president, I could support my committee’s gender equality initiatives – from Australian Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs and columnist Clementine Ford speaking to our students, to diversity mechanisms for male-dominated positions. I am also thrilled that, through this research, I have highlighted how the women-in-leadership issue starts early. Anna Francesca Belgiorno-Nettis is the 2015-2016 president of the Melbourne University Law Students’ Society and a Juris Doctor student. She is the first woman Melbourne LSS president in six years, and a Lawyers Weekly Law Student of the Year finalist.

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