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One hundred years on, how much further do female lawyers have to go?


By Madeleine Thomas

Australia is striving for greater gender equality in all sectors, but the legal industry is still struggling to close the pay gap and put women in high places.

This year marks the centenary of the Women’s Legal Status Act of 1918, and while numbers of female solicitors in our community are rising, a culture of unconscious bias still exists in the industry.

Rachel Scanlon, founder of Australia’s offshoot First 100 Years Program, is paying tribute to how far we’ve come.

“For me, personally the importance is that it gives me a great perspective on my work as a lawyer now,” Ms. Scanlon began.

“Realising that 100 years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to do this and appreciating what I and all of my female legal colleagues have been able to do.”

Beginning as an endeavour in the UK, in recrafting the First 100 Years program for Australia, Ms. Scanlon hopes to highlight the significance of gender equality in one of our most underrepresented industries.

Rachel Scanlon, Founder of First 100 Years (Photo Supplied by Rachel Scanlon)

“Around 10 years ago, there were about 15,000 solicitors in NSW, of whom 5000 were women. Now there are 30,000 solicitors in NSW of which 15,000 are women,” she said.

“Working our way up the ladder faces all the usual barriers, but I think if women are determined, and with the law firms being increasingly enlightened in terms of the flexible work and maternity leave policies, it is much better.”

With a portrait of the Australia’s Chief Justice Susan Kiefel in the Archibald Prize, plans for a photo mosaic depicting prominent female lawyers, a scholarship program on track and a networking gala event at NSW Parliament House in November, the First 100 Years initiative is striving to give women one thing.

“Leadership training for women, particularly encouraging women to be more assertive and promote themselves, is important because we know that this is one of the more subtle things that women do through their nature that can unfortunately hamper them,” Ms. Scanlon said.

Hoping that her program can build a bridge between the legal worlds of Britain and Australia, discussion will continue to exist outside of the centenary celebration.

“One idea that someone put to me was that we should do something called ‘The Next Hundred Years’ – all about the future of women in law, so we’re toying with that.”

As part of this ongoing discussion, Vice President of the Victorian Women Lawyer’s Association (VWL), Elena Tsalanidis, said the contrast in rising statistics and the real world is a result of ignorance.

“The client might want to hear from the male partner in the room, just assuming that they’re more senior, which isn’t necessarily the case,” Ms Tsalanidis said.

“Sometimes people are just ignorant. Male bosses are completely unaware of these sort of things because it doesn’t affect them.”

Ms. Tsalanidis believes this is due to a landscape of pay secrecy that can act as a barrier for gender equality to be a realistic goal in the foreseeable future.

“When you sign your employment contract, there is a clause that says you’re not entitled to discuss your remuneration package with anyone. And that creates the culture of silence because people don’t know what their colleagues are getting paid,” she said.

Some businesses, including Melbourne law firm Maurice Blackburn are taking the lead to improve.

“They’venow removed pay secrecy from their employment contract, which is an amazing step.You don’t have to discuss your salary, it just means that you’re able to,” Ms. Tsalanidissaid.

With Victoria as the first state in Australia to allow women to work as solicitors, the VWL is now looking to roll out a scheme addressing pay transparency, hoping to motivate law firms to bridge the gap in gender equity.

“We’re inviting them to conduct a gender pay gap audit, so comparing like-to-like people and saying, ‘Are you paying this man and this woman the same amount of money?’”

The VWL then plays to give an award to the firm that has done the best job of finding out data to coincide with Equal Pay Day.

“Effectively it’s all secretive. We don’t even know how big or small this problem is and our inkling is that it’s bad,” Ms. Tsalanidissaid.

But, she acknowledged that equal pay is not the only problem facing women in the legal industry.

“What this involves is a real educational shift. I think younger male and female lawyers think that obviously we should all be paid the same. I see it with more senior people in the profession,” Ms. Tsalanidis said.

“Flexible parental leave policies for men and women, not having the stigma on child rearing responsibilities, or looking after elderly parents,” she said. “There should be no career punishment for that.”

When asked if women will ever achieve equality, Ms. Tsalanidisstill has high hopes for the law industry.

“We know that current estimates suggest that we’re not going to have pay equality for another 220 years. I would like to see that come down to a generation. I think that’s achievable.”

“Technically no one is operating outside the law, but realistically on a day-to-day basis they definitely are. There are still some seriously complicated issues on this topic,” she said.

Such issues can be seen in statistics provided by the NSW Bar Association. Policy Lawyer at the Bar, Ting Lim, is of the belief that the law without women would be bleak.

“It would be really boring. Vanilla in terms of the decisions being made, the outcomes would be so out of touch,” Ms Lim said.

With 77% of barristers in NSW still male, the Bar’s data suggests that despite the 100-year milestone, the next century requires consideration.

Lim, who has spent almost two years at the Bar, has seen improvements in gender equality. However, there is work to be done to reach 50-50 male and female numbers.

“I’m female and I’m also a culturally diverse person. For law, that’s very rare, especially at the Bar,” Ms. Lim said.

“The bar is dominantly Anglo male. It’s interesting when come up with ideas that they haven’t thought of. It’s not because it’s not a bad idea or good one, it’s just that they lack diversity of thought contribution.”

A report published in the Sydney Morning Herald by UNSWProfessor George Williams in February 2017, acknowledged that while many firms now have 50% female associates, “A male barrister spoke before the High Court 438 times. A woman did so only on 42 occasions. In most cases, women were silent.”

For Ms. Lim, this is no surprise. Despite law firms beginning to promote women more, a stigma surrounding their role in the law still exists.

“I think the challenge for women is that if you choose to take a period off work to have a family, that does impact your career,” she said.

One hundred years on, with data representing a closing gender gap, acceptance is still the biggest problem the law industry faces.

“I think more women are coming through law schools. When I was doing law about ten years ago it seemed like it was 50-50, if not more women,” Ms Lim said.

“The challenge is women being appointed to places where it’s ok to still be a woman,  where you’re not just a lawyer.”

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