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Five ways to keep women in the law

Five ways to keep women in the law

By Riaza Rigby

Discrimination Wellbeing Workplace 


While more women are working in the law than ever, attrition rates from the profession are higher for women than men. To retain women in the law five key areas need improvement.1 Despite the law attracting a higher proportion of female graduates it remains weighted towards male practitioners.2 Research reveals that more women than men leave the profession within five years of admission, and between the ages of 35 and 55 the numbers of practising women lawyers falls by 75 per cent.3 How can it be that the number of women entering the profession is increasing at such a high rate and yet, at a certain point, women are exiting the profession just as fast? 1. Senior role models and support for career progression Most notably, women are lacking from the upper echelons of the legal profession. A poor representation of women at partner level exists in most firms and briefing practices show that the gender profile of court appearances is male-dominated.4 It is imperative that the visibility of senior women is improved to demonstrate that women are actively promoted and have realistic opportunities to prosper. Several barriers have been identified which inhibit the prospects for women in junior and mid-level roles to penetrate senior positions, including stereotypical assumptions, a lack of diversity and a misunderstanding of the business case for gender targets.5 Women experience career progression differently to men and studies show that female legal practitioners are more satisfied and therefore more likely to continue in the law when valuable mentoring and sponsorship opportunities are available to them.6 Cultivating promotion programs that focus on finance and business development in addition to leadership skills have been highlighted as another element of retaining female participation. Transparent selection criteria and KPIs as part of a gender strategy could also be recommended to promote a gender equilibrium in the upper ranks of the profession. 2. Pay disparity There has always been a gender pay gap in the profession and despite a rise in female law graduates, it has not improved. It is well documented that female barristers exhibit one of the biggest pay disparities of all occupations, suggesting it is a particularly difficult area in which to make change.7 The gap represents more than just deficits attributable to parental leave absences; and there is evidence that unconscious bias plays a role in denying women equal pay.8 Programs that promote networking to create a larger pool of work contacts and negotiating pay rises should become a key aspect of breaching this gap. In order to frame pay disparity as an exception and not the rule, firms may wish to consider conducting remuneration gap audits to measure and manage any disparity. This requires a strategic approach driven by leadership within our legal organisations. 3. Time demands The legal profession has outdone most industries in paid parental leave and flexible working arrangements, however there is still some way to go given the required working hours and the pressure of billable obligations. While long working hours affects men and women, billable hours favour those on full-time loads. Part-time work, job sharing and time-in-lieu are some of the policies used to accommodate work-life balance, but more could be done to experiment with remote and virtual work spaces and alternative billing structures. 4. Parental and caring responsibilities Maternity leave, career breaks and flexible working arrangements are now more accessible for women to accommodate caring responsibilities. Nonetheless, a significant proportion of women do not continue in the profession after such periods or perceive a change in their opportunities for advancement. This is likely due to both organisational and personal factors. However, reintroduction training and continuing engagement with one’s organisation during an absence may be key to ensuring a successful transition back into the workplace. A pivotal change required in the profession is the recognition and importance of having family-friendly environments in which women and men are supported in managing the difficulties of professional practice and caring for a family. 5. Culture of the profession Toxic, stressful, relentless and callous – these are just some of the terms used to describe the culture of the legal profession. As a result, lawyers face higher rates of depression and anxiety than any other occupation.9 Mental illness impacts both men and women in the profession and is a stain on the current working practices that our legal structures enforce. It appears that the legal profession is plagued by unacceptable pressures and behaviours that drive out practitioners. Behaviours often reported by female practitioners concern discrimination and harassment. Of the women surveyed in the 2012 Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission report, 40 per cent of those female practitioners and legal trainees described personally experiencing discrimination and 23.9 per cent said they had experienced sexual harassment while working in the law.10 Increasing female participation and visibility may go some way to overcoming the persistence of these behaviours, along with effective diversity and harassment education. Conclusion The issue of women leaving the law is no longer a problem just for women, but for society in general. It is now clear that the high number of qualified women in the law is not enough to budge resistant forces that prevent meaningful change. An exodus of highly educated women from the profession is a loss of talent and investment. An overall perception shift is needed; alternative working arrangements are not a lack of commitment or willingness to work and rather are an attempt to be responsible in all aspects of one’s life; female practitioners produce high-quality work and are deserving of the attempts to rebalance the pay disparity; gender targets are not arbitrary but a strategic mechanism for correcting an imbalance, and women are equally capable and worthy of staying in a profession that sustains them. RIAZA RIGBY is a law graduate completing a traineeship with Russell Kennedy Lawyers. She is a member of the YL Professional Development Committee. Jaffe, A, Chediak, G, Mackenzie, T & Douglas, E, 2016, ‘Retaining and Advancing Women in National Law Firms’, Stanford Law School, 5; Law Council of Australia, 2014, ‘National Attrition and Re-Engagement Study (NARS) Report’, 86. Jaffe, A, Chediak, G, Mackenzie, T & Douglas, E, 2016, ‘Retaining and Advancing Women in National Law Firms’, Stanford Law School, 4. Alicia Patterson, ‘Balancing act-women in the law’, University of Melbourne Law School, June 2015, Issue 13, citing comments made by the then VEOHRC Commissioner, Kate Jenkins, at Victorian Women Lawyer’s event, . Law Council of Australia, 2009, ‘Beyond the Statistical Gap: 2009 Court Appearance Survey’, 7. Law Council of Australia, 2014, ‘National Attrition and Re-Engagement Study (NARS) Report’, 76, 84 and 86. Law Council of Australia, 2014, ‘National Attrition and Re-Engagement Study (NARS) Report’, 5 and 93; Jaffe, A, Chediak, G, Mackenzie, T & Douglas, E, 2016, ‘Retaining and Advancing Women in National Law Firms’, Stanford Law School, 5; Law Council of Australia, 2014, ‘National Attrition and Re-Engagement Study (NARS) Report’, 7 and 31. Australasian Lawyer, ‘Barristers top the gender pay gap list’, 14 June 2016, . Workplace Gender Equity Agency, ‘Guide to gender pay equity - Practical steps to improve pay equity between women and men in your organisation’, ; Victorian Women Lawyers, ‘Submission to the inquiry into Fair Work Amendment (Gender Pay Gap) Bill 2015, . Kelk, N, Luscombe, G, Medlow, S and Hickie, I, 2009, ‘Courting the Blues: Attitudes towards depression in Australian law students and lawyers’, Brian & Mind Research Institute and University of Sydney, 2; Kendall, C, 2011, ‘Report on Psychological Distress and Depression in the Legal Profession, The Law Society of Western Australia, 4. Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, 2012, ‘Changing the rules – the experiences of female lawyers in Victoria’, 4.

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