Women Practising Law

As unimaginable as it seems, Australian women have only been practising law for slightly over 100 years. New South Wales celebrated the centennial of women’s acceptance into the practice of law pursuant to the Women’s Legal Status Act 1918.

Woman practising lawThis Act made provision for the fact that gender shall not be considered a ‘disability’ or a reason to disallow a qualified woman from a career in local government, as a justice, as a magistrate, or as a legal practitioner. To their credit, almost all other Australian states permitted women to enter the legal profession years ahead of NSW in 1918.

It stands to reason with a little more than 100-years’ worth of time shared in the legal profession, that women and men would be on equal footing. Unfortunately, this is not the case in Australia.

In fact, many in the legal profession agree that women’s rate of entry and advancement has moved with the speed of a snail during the past 100 years. Even worse is the rate in which women lawyers advance to higher levels within their law firms.

According to Annette Hughes, Corrs Chambers Westgarth consultant and former partner explains that around one quarter of female lawyers make partner at their law firms. Ms. Hughes describes the move towards gender equality, especially in uppermost levels, of the Australian legal system as glacial.

WHAT STATISTICS EXIST REGARDING GENDER EQUALITY IN THE AUSTRALIAN LEGAL PROFESSION?

  • The legal services profession has a gender pay gap of over 35 per cent. However, in the private sector, the pay gap is just under 23 per cent.
  • Recent statistics show that of newly hired lawyers at Australia’s top law firms, one third were women.
  • The percentage of females who are partners in their law firms hovers around 25 per cent.
  • Merely ten per cent of the senior positions in Australia’s legal profession belongs to female lawyers.
  • Only 16 per cent of women lawyers said they would ever mull over the idea of working at the Bar.
  • In a decade, the ratio of female Commonwealth judges rose by only 12 per cent.
  • The Federal Court ratio of male to female justices and judges is three to one
  • In State Supreme Court and Court of Appeals judges and justices, males make up 77 per cent and females 23 per cent

WHAT ARE THE BARRIERS TO THE ADVANCEMENT OF WOMEN IN AUSTRALIA’S LEGAL SYSTEM?

Female lawyer at work in legal firmWhile the catalyst of complicated problems is sometimes difficult to pinpoint when it comes to gender inequality within the Australian legal system several it is easy to identify several stimuli.

  • Awareness – It is difficult for females in the legal profession to fathom, yet numbers of their male counterparts believe women are not treated differently than men. This is in spite of the fact that statistics exist that show the opposite is true.
  • Leadership – Top members of legal practices must present a culture of acceptance from the top down. It behoves senior members to equally share important information regarding a path to advancement within the organisation with their women co-workers.
  • Archaic attitudes – Old habits and ideas die hard. Until an over-arching belief of gender equality exists, women in all professions will experience a disparity. The World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report presented results of a study of 144 nations that focused the degree of equality for each nation from an economic point of view. Australia ranked number 44 on that list.
  • Devaluing women in the legal profession – While some may argue that this is not the case, female lawyers are devalued by others in several ways.
  • Lack of wage transparency – It is no secret that many firms negotiate salary behind closed doors. This gives the employer the upper hand. Female lawyers would fight harder for their own wages if they had a clear picture of what male counterparts earn.
  • The lack of a flexible work environment – While the legal profession is historically demanding, numerous professions adjusted their environments as social awareness spread. Things like job-sharing and part-time hours work well in many circumstances. The notion of a lawyer’s billable hours puts women at a disadvantage as well.
  • No follow-through – In recent years, several initiatives began with the goal of removing the gender barrier. Unfortunately, during follow-ups firms only displayed lip-service.

Addressing these problems needs to be a priority. Many intelligent and talented female lawyers are parlaying their skills into other career fields. Running off qualified lawyers because of a lack of understanding and action will create a large intelligence deficit and ultimately harm the profession.

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