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It is 101 years since Australian women won the right to practise law in NSW, with the passing of the Women's Legal Status Act 1918 (NSW). However, barriers to gender equality still remain.

It is commonly acknowledged that the legal industry is one of tradition, stayed and wedded to the practices of years gone past. More recently we have heard about the wave of “New Law” and the innovation that is going to revolutionise the legal industry. Sounds interesting and exciting. But what makes up an industry?

Practices, precedents, technology, legislation, yes. But more important are its people.

The defence of the law and the application of justice is still run by mostly people. In fact, according to a report conducted by Urbis for the Law Society of NSW in 2016, the legal industry is predominantly staffed by women. Women made up more than 50 per cent of registered lawyers in Australia in 2017. This was a major milestone for Women in Law.

But this milestone is bittersweet. While 64 percent of law graduates are female, this figure drops drastically at partner level with women only making up 16 percent of equity partners. This dramatic difference begs the question: why? Why are women struggling to make it to the top in an industry in which they have fought so hard to forge a place of their own?

Barriers to success

There are many reasons for this: from the failure of law firms to translate flexible work practices into reality, to the focus of women on raising their families, and of course the (mostly unsubstantiated) concept that “clients prefer to brief out to male partners”. These are just a few examples of the challenges that women face when aiming for leadership positions not just in the legal industry, but across the board in professional circles.

A variety of key areas are continuing to create barriers for women in law to take on senior positions and these need to be addressed.

  1. The Gender Pay Gap

Although women make up around 47 per cent of the workforce in Australia, on average they take home $239.80 less than men each week. In average terms, this means that women typically need to work about 60 more days than their male counterparts every year to earn the same amount of money. This can seem like an insurmountable barrier to women hoping to achieve equality in the legal profession. Only 16 per cent of respondents to a survey carried out by the UK Law Society  could see visible steps to combatting a similar gender pay gap in the UK.

However, it is worth noting that progress has been made on Australian soil. 2018 saw our gap drop to the lowest gap ever, and it now sits at an historic low of 14.1 per cent across all industries in Australia.

  1. Sexual Harassment and the #MeToo movement

With the development of the #MeToo movement in 2017, awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace has been steadily rising. Lawyers are not immune to this harassment in the workplace, with 37 per cent of Australian lawyers reporting experiencing sexual harassment in a survey by the International Bar Association in 2018.

Despite this figure, there is a general consensus that media reports and discussion of the #MeToo movement has made a positive difference to the legal industry. Employers are becoming more aware of the need for a diverse workforce, and management teams are working to adopt an open-door approach, encouraging conversations around respecting women in the workplace and taking a zero-tolerance stance on sexual harassment and assault.

  1. Unconscious bias and gender discrimination

What is perhaps most concerning for women looking to progress into leadership positions is the fact that they are overlooked for certain roles based on their gender. There are many ways unconscious bias can lead to gender discrimination in legal workplaces. From men not thinking of a woman to carry out a particular role, to jobs being stereotyped to a particular gender, and women being pushed aside for requesting flexible working practices. The struggles that women face in the workplace are numerous and real, and highlight the challenges they face when trying to progress to a senior role within the legal sector.

These attitudes need to change not only for the benefit of women but for the benefit of businesses overall. Innovation and creativity thrive on diversity. Education is key and the more that these issues are discussed, and male employees are challenged on these issues, the more females will feel supported and stand to gain.

Driving change

Change is happening. 2010 saw the introduction of the first ASX Corporate Governance Council diversity report released, and since then the number of women on the Boards of ASX-listed companies grew from 8.3 per cent in 2009 to 26.2 percent in 2017. Measures like this are hugely important, but there is still more to be done.

There is incentive to do so, too. Increasing the number of women in corporate leadership positions is likely to significantly increase financial returns, and a more diverse board can lead to more innovative thinking and better adaptability for the future.

Law firms have to take responsibility and ensure that leadership positions are attractive to females. Offering more flexible working options, openly challenging gender discrimination and asking male leaders to act as champions to actively tackle unconscious bias, can go a long way to closing the gap between men and women in the workplace. Perhaps private practice firms can learn lessons from in-house teams, where 50 per cent of leaders are female. The legal industry as a whole should work together and support each other to try and attain a representative amount of female senior leaders in both private practice and in-house teams.

Join us

A huge amount of progress has been made since women first joined the legal profession in Australia in the past 100 years, yet the debate around the role of women in the legal profession continues.

Join us as we continue this necessary conversation at an event hosted by leaders in the industry on 30 May in Sydney. We will look at what progression may look like, and how we think we could bridge the gap between men and women in law over the next 100 years.