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More women are at the helm of justice organisations than ever before, as the judiciary inches closer to historic majorities. While the numbers speak volumes about forward momentum, there remain structural barriers that need shifting to achieve equality. This story is a collation of the challenges and opportunities of four trailblazing women determined to move the needle.

Sally Dowling SC doesn’t consider herself a particularly ambitious person. The Director of Public Prosecutions, who is the first woman to hold the office since its inception in 1987, tells the Journal that people may “raise their eyebrows” at that remark.

“I never set my sights on being the Director,” the top prosecutor begins. “In fact, it really isn’t something I thought about until it was advertised when my predecessor Lloyd Babb finished up. I have always done what I wanted to do at a particular point in time. The desire to set my own destiny is strong.

“I thought I was very well positioned for the role and that it would be good for the organisation. Female leaders have different perspectives to male leaders and different experiences which inform their approach. They may have first-hand experience of the challenges and barriers women face and be committed to addressing those in the workplaces they lead.”

Dowling is part of a trailblazing cohort of women reshaping the upper echelons of the traditionally male-dominated justice sector in NSW. Six months after Dowling was appointed in August 2021, Karen Webb made history when she was sworn in as the state’s first female Police Commissioner. Months later, Monique Hitter became the CEO of Legal Aid – only the second woman to lead the organisation in its 44-year history. And in May 2019, Belinda Rigg SC was the first woman to be elevated to the role of Senior Public Defender.

It’s the first time in NSW history that all of these posts have been held by women at the same time. The significance of this, Hitter says, cannot be understated.

“It is saying something about where we are as a society in NSW that there can be women in all of these really senior influential roles. It is an extraordinary time to be CEO of Legal Aid when there are strong and talented women at the heads of the organisations we work so closely with,” Hitter tells the Journal.

If you look across the justice tapestry, the positions held by women don’t stop at these four. The President of both the Law Society of NSW and the NSW Bar Association are women: Cassandra Banks and Gabrielle Bashir SC respectively. Ellen Skinner is the President of the Children’s Court, and the broader judiciary is making its way to gender parity – a reality that eludes many courts around the world. The late revolutionary US justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg famously said: “And when I’m sometimes asked when will there be enough women on the [nine-seat] US Supreme Court? I say when there are nine.”

The NSW Local Court is within a fraction of the milestone, with 72 women holding positions, one magistrate shy of 50 per cent of the total 146. In the District Court, the number of women judges has increased by 50 per cent since 2010 with the appointments of Judges Sarah Hopkins and Lara Gallagher this year. There are 34 female judges of the total 80.
Since October 2013, 10 out of 20 appointments to the Supreme Court have been women. Women now make up 14 of the total 52 judges and judges of appeal. And in 2022, Justice Jayne Jagot was appointed as the 56th Justice of the High Court of Australia, making it the first time in history that women make up the Court’s majority.

NSW Attorney General Michael Daley told the Journal the Minns Government is working to ensure the trend continues. “The benches of the NSW Courts should be representative of the communities they serve, so it’s pleasing to see the number of women on the bench in NSW is increasing. Diversity in all our workplaces is not only desirable but essential, particularly given the important role of the courts in our communities.”

Female leaders have different perspectives to male leaders and different experiences which inform their approach. They may have first-hand experience of the challenges and barriers women face and be committed to addressing those in the workplaces they lead.

Director of Public Prosecutions Sally Dowling SC

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Director of Public Prosecutions Sally Dowling SC

Ambition is often framed as a dirty word for women. And, like Dowling, the leaders in this piece told the Journal they never overtly aspired to be the heads of their organisations. Did this arise from a sense of an historical lack of representation, or due to structural gendered bias? Over the course of their careers, the four women have each followed what they are innately passionate about: the law and serving their community. The experiences of these women reveal answers to how the legal profession and justice sector can continually strive to tip the balance.

Hitter says, “When I first started as a lawyer and even before that as a social worker, I didn’t aspire to be a very senior manager or the head of an organisation. I wanted to be a proficient lawyer and the best I could be in the profession. My career took me down a pathway that I hadn’t planned to go, but I am pleased it did.”

Rigg has always focused on her love of the law: “I wasn’t even aware of the Public Defenders when I started at the Bar. The position of Senior Public Defender is something I had no knowledge of. I was very much focused on doing my work rather than trying to achieve a particular position.”

And Webb reflects: “When I started my career, I started in the private sector in accounting, and then I realised I had a strong yearning to work in community service and law enforcement … In the Police, I never aspired to more than the next rank at one time.”

According to the 2022 Annual Profile of Solicitors NSW published by the Law Society of NSW, for the sixth consecutive year, female lawyers outnumber men. However, there is a greater proportion of male principals (65 per cent) than females (35 per cent). Although this gap has gradually decreased over time, Dowling says there is still a way to go to bolster the top ranks with women.

“If you asked me when I graduated from law school in 1994 whether there would be ‘first women in law positions’ in 2023, I would have said no. Even though I am proud to be the first female DPP, I am also sad to be the first female DPP and to be in a cohort where we have these ‘women firsts’,” Dowling says.

“Change does not come from the effluxion of time; it comes from people pushing for change. We have the numbers coming through law schools and we give younger female graduates the equality of opportunity – that goes without saying. But we need to focus on developing the skillsets of women in senior management, in leadership, to make sure they are well supported so they don’t have to eventually make a choice between their job and their family.”

Dual responsibilities

When asked how the legal profession can embolden more women to seek senior leadership, Dowling pauses to take in the weight of the question. She responds that it is a challenge she has been “thinking about for 30 years”.

Dowling was the first Crown prosecutor in NSW to work part time; she was appointed when her first child was one year old. The mother-of-three stayed part time for almost 14 years and during that period she took silk and was appointed as Deputy Senior Crown prosecutor and Head of the Appeals Unit at the ODPP.

“I was appointed during Nick Cowdery’s tenure, and he gave me every opportunity. That continued under Lloyd Babb’s leadership too. I was given the opportunity to do trial work, appellate work and go to the High Court to do policy work. I never felt like I was of any different standing to the other prosecutors,” Dowling shares.

“It enabled me to live the life that I wanted to lead, which was being involved in my children’s early lives, but also continuing to practise law. In my case (and it’s my observation of the other women that work at the ODPP), it engendered a great deal of loyalty towards the organisation.

“Organisations in the law need to recognise that work life is just part of your whole life. It sounds like a cliché, but supporting people to live their full lives every day is a way to having a successful and fulfilled work force. For many young lawyers, career momentum starts in their late twenties and early thirties, and that often coincides with starting a family. There needs to be structural recognition of that, so when they decide they want to work more (if they do), they can. Otherwise, they can be helped to progress notwithstanding the fact they are part time. I am a great example of that.”

Dowling adds that these standards should also apply equally to the men who want to be involved in raising their families. She says that will ensure women aren’t forced to decide between the competing parts of their lives.

“A lot of the women I know will choose their family, and by the time they have shepherded their kids through that part of their childhood, they have lost their professional confidence, or their interest in the law, or the moment has gone. It is about making sure that when important decisions are made, there is a multiplicity of perspectives and voices at those key decision-making tables. And that different perspectives are listened to, that structural inequality is recognised and that strategies are developed to address it,” she says.

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CEO of Legal Aid NSW, Monique Hitter

The findings in the Annual Profile of Solicitors confirm this, with 18 per cent of women reported working part time, compared to 12 per cent of males. Many private firms, including Gadens and Baker McKenzie, have recently implemented major changes to parental leave policies to offer equal opportunities to employees regardless of gender. Some firms now offer up to 30 weeks’ paid leave for either parent, which can be used in blocks within the first two years of the birth or adoption of the child.

A Monash University study from 2021 looked at the concept of egg freezing as an “employee benefit” and revealed almost half of the 656 Victorian women surveyed believed it would be appropriate for employers to have it on offer. However, while some participants saw the potential for employer-sponsored egg freezing to increase and support women’s reproductive and career options, others were concerned it could pressure women to delay childbearing, reinforce the career vs family dichotomy and exacerbate existing inequalities.

Hitter highlighted that the rise of remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic opened opportunities for women because it allowed for a greater understanding of the challenges that come with managing work and home life, particularly for those with young children. The mother-of-one said as more firms adopt policies and procedures to support this into the future, it will remove the “gendered fears” internalised by many women that if they put their careers first, they are a bad parent.

“That’s the confidence we need to generate and portray: that women can do both of those things, be a mother and a lawyer … it’s not just convincing men that women can do both. But convincing women that they can do both, and not feel guilty about it,” Hitter says.

This perception is something Rigg confronted, and then overcame, during her early years at the private Bar. When it came time to start thinking about starting a family, she reveals to the Journal that she feared her practice would dissolve.

“I had a concern that it wasn’t viable to take time off for children. But I do think I was misguided in that understanding because since then, I’ve known so many people in the profession who have taken time out of practice or worked flexibly because of young children. It is entirely possible to do, and a lot of chambers have policies to support that now,” Rigg says.

Rigg had both her children after moving to the Public Defenders Office in 2004, and worked part time until her youngest child was at school. Like Dowling, she was appointed as Senior Counsel while working part time, and says she hopes that offers reassurance for young members of the profession concerned about “going backwards” after taking time off.

“One of the main challenges in my career was having children. It feels almost wrong to use the word ‘challenge’ because it has also been the delight of my life. Having time off for children and then having to practice while caring for children has been extremely challenging for me. But it is nonetheless eminently possible, and it is a great joy to have those dual responsibilities,” Rigg says.

“Being appointed as Senior Counsel while working part time was challenging because I’d had such a significant amount of time not doing work that was as visible as doing long trial work, for example. To start back full time after having a significant period off was daunting. But it came back to me straight away. Many of the judges I had been used to appearing before, in the time before my son was born, had then retired, or passed away. It was a reintroduction. It felt like having to start again. But it wasn’t.”

It is an extraordinary time to be CEO of Legal Aid when there are strong and talented woman at the heads of the organisations we work so closely with.

Monique Hitter, CEO Legal Aid NSW

Shifting the status quo

When Karen Webb began her career at NSW Police at 22 years old, only 10 per cent of the Force was made up of women. But having grown up in a family of boys, in a small country town called Boorowa between Yass and Cowra in the Hilltops region of NSW, Webb says she didn’t see gender, rather just “inspiring people”. Now, of officers across the Police Force (including unsworn officers), 36 per cent are women.

“There were very few women holding the top ranks when I started. Those that were senior women at the time were way more senior than me, so they weren’t immediately visible and accessible. I did work with women who were five or so years senior, and I took guidance from them. I credit those women now when I see them occasionally from time to time. I thank them for their guidance back in those days because that’s all formative to where it’s taken me now. But I had some great male colleagues as well,” Webb says.

“I think back when I joined the police what I thought were challenges and difficulties [are] nothing compared to what I see police officers and staff have to do today. Community expectations of law enforcement officers are much higher and I think the requirements are much higher. Laws have become more complex and so are the expectations around how we perform our duties. And rightfully so.”

Since becoming Senior Public Defender, Rigg has recommended the appointment of seven public defenders – five of them women, “not through any design”, but from a surplus of outstanding female applicants. But when she started at the private Bar in 1998, Rigg was the only woman on her floor.

Although female peers were harder to come by at the time, Rigg says she looked up to trailblazing female judges including Mary Gaudron, who was the first female Justice of the High Court of Australia, and would read Carolyn Simpson’s judgments in the Court of Criminal Appeal. Simpson was the second women ever appointed to the NSW Supreme Court. Rigg also praises the encouragement and generosity of Tony Bellanto KC, whom she worked for while studying at the College of Law.

“I don’t think I recognised at the time how isolating it was being the only woman on the floor. It didn’t feel terrible at the time, but looking back on it, it wasn’t ideal from a psychological or social perspective. There was also a tendency, with the distribution of work from senior counsel to junior counsel on the floor, to give the better work to the junior male barristers,” Rigg says.

“I was aware of other women who had done really great things, so I just persevered and was able to develop a good practice anyway. That floor now has a much greater proportion of women.

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NSW Police Commissioner Karen Webb

“Representation has always been important to me because it is important for women to be seen doing more difficult and more complex cases. The more visible that is, it normalises it for young women and young men starting out. Hopefully that has changed from when I started out.”

After graduating from Sydney University, Dowling worked as an Associate to Federal Court Justice Graham Hill, and says she was encouragingly surrounded by many junior women at the Court. But after moving to the Bar she “accepted” a lack of female representation at the senior levels was the status quo.

“It goes without saying that being a young, female commercial barrister (as I was in the 1990s), there were entrenched attitudes of sexism at the Bar. And within law firms in terms of who they would brief, and what type of matters they would brief to women as opposed to men. My understanding is that it remains a problem in the commercial equity arm of the law, and also in some private law firms,” Dowling says.

“The ODPP is 65 per cent female staff, and included in our Crown prosecutors ranks we are more than 40 per cent female, which is not representative of the Bar. My feeling is that the ‘old boys’ club’ is breaking down, and I think the assiduous efforts of successive governments to appoint women to the judiciary have been successful. I think there is more to do in private firms, but that is not my area of expertise. You look across Government and you see a fantastic representation of senior women. I am not suggesting there isn’t still work to be done, but we have come a long way.

“We are starting to see the judiciary reflect the community in gender terms. It is lacking in other forms of diversity. One of the problems with appointing great women to the judiciary is that it depletes the number of women who remain at the Bar. They are there, but the higher you go, the thinner the numbers get.”

This is also reflected by the statistics in the Annual Profile of Solicitors, with the age of female lawyers averaging over six years younger than their male counterparts. Further, as seen in previous years, the gender pay gap is evident regardless of age, years since admission and sector of practice.

I’m so grateful to have such a great network of women in justice. We all have a real drive to make change while we are in these very privileged roles. We are all strong women, so I think between us we will manage to achieve some great things.

Commissioner Karen Webb

At Legal Aid NSW, women make up 78 per cent of the organisation’s work force, and 77 per cent of senior roles are held by women.

Hitter has spent the last 23 years at Legal Aid, and among her most proud achievements is her time as Director of Civil Law, a position she held for 11 years. Hitter and her team established several ground-breaking specialist services in the Civil Law Division of Legal Aid NSW, including the Civil Law Service for Aboriginal Communities, the Children’s Civil Law Service and the Refugee Service. The Productivity Commission in its landmark Inquiry into Access to Justice Arrangements in 2014 stated that the Legal Aid NSW Civil Law Division set the national benchmark for the delivery of civil law services.

“I was appointed at a time when the division was on the precipice of growth. We built several specialist services off the back of more investment in the Civil Law division, and it was a really exciting time to be leading because we completely transformed the work that we did.

“Legal Aid has always predominantly had a lot of women working for the organisation. There are opportunities for women to go into management roles; especially over the last 20 years I’ve seen that happen more and more.”

Hitter credits the strong “male champions” who encouraged her growth and progression, including the late Bill Grant who was CEO of the organisation at the time, and her predecessor Brendan Thomas. “Having said that, I do also want to reflect on the fact that I’ve had some incredibly supportive and encouraging senior women around my whole professional career. Without them, I don’t think I could have done what I’ve done either. Now I rely on the support of senior women that I count as colleagues and friends. As women we tend to do that, we build these strong networks and they’re incredibly important,” Hitter says.

Representation has always been important to me because it is important for women to be seen doing more difficult and more complex cases. The more visible that is, it normalises it for young women and young men starting out.

Belinda Rigg SC, Senior Public Defender

‘It takes a village’

On the day of the Journal photoshoot when the women come together, the conversation is light as they joke about posing for pictures. But during their regular meet ups away from the camera, the topics up for discussion are anything but easy, and are instead pervaded by the systemic issues each want to tackle.
“We offer a lot of support to each other as the leads of our agencies, and as people who have got a similar experience, having worked for decades in what has been, for each of us, a traditionally male-dominated profession. It is fantastic to have those peers with common experience and shared background, and to be able to bounce ideas off them and debrief,” Dowling says.

“The importance of peer networks is something I hadn’t fully appreciated until I became Director. It can’t be overstated. Your peers change according to what your position is, and even as the head of an agency, you need to have that group of peers to be able to debrief.”

Webb adds, “I’m so grateful to have such a great network of women in justice. We all have a real drive to make change while we are in these very privileged roles. We are all strong women, so I think between us we will manage to achieve some great things … For me, one of my priorities as Commissioner is focusing on the ‘silent crimes’ which are domestic violence, child abuse, sexual abuse and cybercrimes. Domestic violence doesn’t discriminate and it’s everywhere. I think for women in justice, that’s where we can make some inroads, at a practical level and a systems-based level, to look at what could be different and make change.”

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Belinda Rigg SC, Senior Public Defender

The weight of being the heads of their respective organisations is not lost on these women, and when asked individually what leadership means to them, their answers are bound together by a common thread: it’s about people.

Webb says, “Leadership is the responsibility of the whole workforce. We have 22,00 employees, and it is a privilege to lead them. We are a very people-based organisation. Not just the organisation itself, but the work we do in our community. We are serving 8.5 million people in NSW. It’s leading knowing that you’re dealing with humans and having a human-centered approach.”

“And I still go home and cook dinner and clean my house. I go to the shops and do my shopping. I often say to our officers that we are members of our communities, and we just happen to wear blue shirts sometimes.”

Dowling comments that she is inspired to come to work every day to an organisation full of lawyers and staff who are “truly committed to public service”. “The work we do is often for the most vulnerable members of our community. We work a lot with children, people with mental health issues, and people from disadvantaged and marginalised communities. We have a massive case load, like every other lawyer in NSW. There is not enough time, there are not enough resources. And the subject matter of our work can be very confronting. But every day my staff show up and give it their all.”

Hitter reveals what keeps her going as she faces the enormity of the change Legal Aid aims to achieve: “In all the responsibilities and work that we do, it takes a village. That’s the thing I keep coming back to. For me being able to stay myself in this role, it takes a village. It takes all those networks, all those people that support and mentor you. And you do it for them too.

“I have a very strong belief that leadership is demonstrated not only by people that are in the role. Leadership qualities are about taking care of people. I find that when I’ve got a problem, bringing in the people around me that can help me solve it is the thing that makes the most difference. That is an important way of thinking for me.”

Just be patient and not in such a rush. Sometimes in this profession you can feel like everything is urgent, and everything has to be done immediately. It’s better to take a breath and let things happen in their own good time.

Monique hitter

Patience is a virtue

Rigg has advised on or appeared in hundreds of matters before the Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeal, in relation to very serious criminal cases. Rigg admits that by nature of her position acting for people charged with serious crimes, she is not always the most popular person in the room. But she tells the Journal it is important for her to stay focused on the big picture.

“You can feel discouraged by the outcome of particular cases, or the way in which they are decided or the course of some litigation. When I have felt discouraged, I have tried to maintain focus on the positive aspects of the criminal justice system, as it does work in our state,” Rigg says.

And for junior members of the profession looking to these women, wondering how to follow in their footsteps, Rigg says: “My advice is to work hard. I think a lot of people think there is some great skill or talent that good lawyers have. But the main attribute that is important is to work hard, be prepared, persevere and back yourself.

“I am very conscious of the fact that my knowledge and experience is always growing. Experience and wisdom come slowly, and I really cherish that. I look forward to learning and developing more and more over the years that come.”

For Dowling to come back with a “clear head” every day, she spends time doing activities that don’t involve words, including being with her family in nature, riding her horse Albert, and “digging around in the dirt” of her garden. The Journal asks about the wisdom engendered from that quiet time, and if there are any pieces of guidance she would offer her younger self, looking back on her career. Dowling responds with a laugh that could only come from the benefit of hindsight. “Don’t worry, it will be fine,” she says warmly.

“That is what I would tell her. I would say, don’t worry what other people think about you. That is one of the few blessings of getting older, that you care less about what people think. I get up every day, I try my hardest and I act with integrity. If you can achieve that every day, that is a win and I think that will stand you in good stead. That would be something to tell my younger self. You can’t do more than your best.”

A timeless cliché is the best way for Hitter to succinctly frame her journey in law so far, and all that is yet to come: “You know the saying patience is a virtue? It really is a virtue that I have had to work on.”

If she were able to address her 20-year-younger self, Hitter says, “I would say: ‘just be patient and not in such a rush.’ That would have been good advice back then because sometimes in this profession you can feel like everything is urgent, and everything has to be done immediately. It’s better to take a breath and let things happen in their own good time.”