What does it mean to be a woman and a lawyer?

There are many reasons young girls choose to study law, and then become lawyers. Maybe it is to help others? An intellectual challenge? Social justice? To effect change, and write new laws? Work in a prestigious firm? Earn lots of money?  Work in the family firm?  Of course the reasons are numerous.

However, whilst Australia is one of the top countries in terms of education for girls, and young women are graduating from law schools in droves and a rate higher than male graduates, the statistics show that women are still underrepresented at prestigious levels, and well paid roles. Less than 35% are judges, less than 25% are made partner, and even less that that are at the bar*. That looks rather like an incredible waste of intelligent women in Australia.

Here’s some idea of what has happened to date.

You graduate from law school. You get a job offer (hopefully). You are told that your pay is confidential, and you must not under any circumstances discuss it with anyone else. In fact, in many cases it is reason for dismissal. You go silent. Meanwhile, behind closed doors, men are getting higher pay rises, more promotions, and generally giving a leg up to the young men who went to the same school.

What then? You are a young woman. You’ve decided with your partner that you want children. You have them. But very quickly you realise that the laws and policies that were supposed to help aren’t helping your domestic life. You have been designated as the “primary carer” – as a Mum, you wouldn’t choose to be anything less. All the government benefits are for the primary carer, so you take time out (not your partner). What then? You return to work, only to find that another man you started with has been promoted whilst becoming a Dad. Presenteeism is still rife in your firm, so you can only work 3 days, as the commute to the office is too much and takes 3 extra hours out of your day. Your partner is on board with the parenting thing, but he is the “secondary carer” and doesn’t get the same benefits you do, so it makes no sense for him to look after bub… Having a child is hard enough, but where you both used to be on equal terms with similar salaries and seniority, now the inequalities are glaring.

After returning to work, you realise that for years you have been tacitly accepting men interrupting your speech, and sexual harassment. Behaviour that becomes all the more clear to you after a break. Even though others have witnessed it in your firm, no one has ever spoken out against it, and when you mention it to someone, they say, oh, “we all get that”. After a few weeks you realise you’ve had enough, and say F&*( it – throwing in the towel. After all, conversations with your partner are tense as childcare fees are eating up far too much of your joint finances to warrant all the stress and heartache. Eeek, what a world?! 

In an alternative world, you graduate from law school. You get a job offer. You are told that your organisation has a “flat structure”. Your employment contract enables you to discuss your pay with others. You do, and find that all the people you started with are on the same salary. You are pleasantly surprised to find out that even the people at the top of your organisation have great, but not outrageous salaries. There are no closed doors. Pay rises are based on performance and quality work.

You want children, so you have them. There is no designation of a “primary” or “secondary” carer. So you decide with your partner that you will take the first 3 months off with bub, then he will have the next 3 months. Having a baby is HARD, but you are making it work. You return to work, and find that you are just as valued as before. You realise you can do quality work when the bub is asleep; whether that be 3am, or 9am. That means that you can still get your 7-8 hours of productive work done, and still work 5 days a week. You feel amazing to be able to have this beautiful symbiosis, where you are still using your intellect, but also looking after this incredible new human being. But, you both decide that you will work less hours because you want more family time, and what’s more, you and your partner are encouraged to embrace a 4 day working week.  Life is GOOooood.

Thank goodness there have been some cultural shifts happening.

Transparency in relation to salaries that organisations are offering. Some organisations doing away with the primary/ secondary carer distinction. Organisations that are offering flat structures. And importantly, people in current senior positions becoming role models by taking family time, working less, and listening to those in junior positions about sexual harassment, believing them and acting upon those allegations.

COVID-19 has demonstrated that workers can be trusted to work from home, do quality work, and perform as well and in some cases better than they did in the office. It has broken down the work/ home distinction and shown that everyone has a family of some sort, somewhere. We all have relationships outside working relationships. As women we are mothers, daughters, sisters, grandmothers, aunties, partners, we all wear multiple hats. And those personal relationships bring a wholeness to our lives, a richness that contributes greatly to our working lives.

I do hope that in the future more women lawyers are not just able to help others, but are represented in positions that effect change and in prestigious roles. We need ambitious gender quotas for the top. We owe it to our girls.

  • Reports by the ABC, Women Lawyers NSW and The Bar Association.

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