Written by: Tania Tan
It has been 100 years since the Women’s Legal Status Act was passed in 1918, but women in the legal profession are still underrepresented in leadership positions.
This was according to the Law Council of Australia, which launched a national campaign in 2017 to counter biases in barristers’ chambers and law firms across Australia, particularly gender bias.
“In some cases, it can be seen as discrimination but in an unconscious way, so unconscious bias, which we know affects men and women relatively equally,” said Elena Tsalanidis, the Vice-President of the Victorian Women Lawyers.
The underrepresentation is not due to the lack in the number of women in the industry.
A 2017 media release by the Law Society of NSW revealed that for the first time, women outnumbered men in the legal profession, making up 50.1 per cent of the industry.
The proportion of women entering the profession had doubled from 2014 to 2016, increasing by 34 per cent compared to their male counterparts with 16 per cent.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, over 60 per cent of law graduates today are female, and 63 per cent move on to be admitted to legal practice.
The problem could stem from women in the legal industry taking time off their careers to have family, and an unconscious bias in the industry preventing them from progressing when and if they return.
“Women, when they do decide to come back to work, they generally work part time,” said Ting Lim, a policy lawyer in the NSW Bar Association.
“And while ideally returning to work part time shouldn’t affect your work and whether or not you get promoted, I think it generally does.
“There’s a bit of bias in that that’s unconscious.”
Lim also said that working mothers tend to face time inflexibility, where they may have to leave work at certain times to pick their children from school or are unable to work from home.
“Some women who have been appointed to the bench, you may or may not know…from their public profile, they may not have children.
“They’ve probably chosen not to have a family, to pursue law.
“Men don’t really need to make that choice.”
Besides facing problems with climbing the leadership ladder in the legal profession, women lawyers also face a gender pay gap.
“Women in the legal profession, well, women in Australia are paid less per week on average by…20 something percent, so that just means that your average full time working woman…is paid 20 per cent less, for the same job, for the same hours,” Tsalanidis said.
“In the legal industry, it’s even higher.”
Tsalanidis also said that getting rid of the pay gap involves educational change, particularly for seniors in the industry.
“I see it with more senior people in the profession, questioning the role of working women,” she said.
“Some people still think it’s just not the same for female lawyers to keep practicing when they’re of a certain age.
“If you want to be a stay-at-home parent, of course you should be. If you want to be a lawyer and that’s what floats your boat, you should be entitled to the same opportunities as everyone else.”
Tsalanidis said that “there is quite a fair way to go until we have true equality”.
“I think we have to be thankful for the trail that’s blazed by the women of the generation before, but at the same time, I think the problems have become harder to identify so legally, women – working women – have legally the same rights as men,” she said.
“But we know in reality that’s not what happens.”
She defined true equality as “flexible parental leave policies for men and women, like not having the stigma…on child rearing responsibilities or looking after elderly parents for example”.
“…so that we have got equality if men want to work flexibly, if women want to work flexibly, there is no career punishment for that, in terms of promotion and…women should be paid the same as men for equal work,” she said.
Despite all these challenges, women have progressed in the male-dominated profession in recent years as there has certainly been more female judges being appointed.
Susan Kiefel was sworn in as Australia’s first female Chief Justice of the High Court last year, and according to Lim, “it’s a big step… still, we need more work in the area.”
In light of all these issues that women in the legal industry face, the First 100 Years project will take place in Australia this year.
The centennial celebration of the Women’s Legal Status Act is headed by Rachel Scanlon, who said that it is important to be “celebrating how far we’ve come”.
Scanlon shared that in Australia in the 20th century, “of all the professions like media and dentistry, and things where you require a qualification, law was the last one that was hung on to and women were still not allowed in even after women had been allowed into the other professions”.
“I left school and I left university with a cohort of men and women friends and I thought we were all the same, we were all equal…and then then I got my first job and noticed that there was only a couple of female partners,” she said.
“Female lawyers represented a lot of the more junior staff members and then suddenly they would disappear, for a variety of reasons, because I think law firms aren’t the most generally family friendly or flexible.”
The centennial project has several plans lined up, including a series of photo mosaics, made up of women lawyers, forming the portraits of women in history that they are celebrating.
Scanlon also said that the team is working to “send a woman on a leadership course, on a scholarship”.
“…the main thing that we are doing on that front is that we hope that that will be the scholarship that will really transform one woman’s life and her career, and therefore transform her workplace and her community.”
On what will be the plan after the centennial celebration, Scanlon said that there have been a few ideas, including a focus on a project for the next hundred years which will look at the future of women lawyers.
“I’ve realized that there was a synergy and for me personally, the importance is that it gives me a great perspective on my work as a lawyer now, realizing that 100 years ago I wouldn’t have been able to do this,” Scanlon said.