52% of the Australian legal profession is now made up by women, and while we are beginning to see some cracks in the glass ceiling, there are still a myriad of barriers impeding female lawyers from climbing to the top and reaching their full potential.
This blog post was co-written by Claire and Lauren, our Balance paralegals, who attended the inaugural Women in Law Forum which addressed some of these issues through forums and speeches on 24 November 2022 in Melbourne.
Diversity, racism, leadership, culture, and power. We hear these words all the time when speaking about our workplaces with our friends, families, and colleagues. For many women, these words invade many, too many, of our conversations. Especially for women working in the legal profession.
But what do they mean? The women in law forum opened a discussion into these words, and on important profession-wide examinations of unresolved inequity and the key issues facing women practicing law.
‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’.
In law, we speak about precedent. Precedent is a legal principle which means ‘guided by a previous decision’. It provides authority for matters that later come before the court, and ensures that subsequent cases are decided consistently. The Doctrine of Precedent has been established in the Australian legal system since the dawn of time, or the 1800’s to be more specific. And in such time, the outdated cultures of the legal profession have, to, taken precedent in the profession.
The legal profession has been traditionally described as an ‘old boys-club’. Many articles and reports have described this culture as a fertile ground for the bullying and harassment of women in law. In 2022, this behavior still pervade the profession, with a 2019 report by the International Bar Association finding that 1 in 2 women would be bullied and 1 in 3 women sexually harrassed in the legal profession. Furthermore, and addressed by Sarah Jefford, Angela Johnson, Alex Tighe, and Anita Thompson in their panel on ‘wellness and progressive workplace policies’, female lawyers are still copping the motherhood penalty, with the 2022 Treasury Round-Up paper finding that women are earning 55 per cent less than men in the first five years of parenthood.
These toxic behaviors were experienced first-hand by Julia Banks, who presented an inspiring keynote speech on her time in Australian politics, where she was subject to the behaviors that permeate the ‘old boys club’. Despite her phenomenal success in her profession, she felt silenced by the misogynistic customs that exist in what is viewed as one of Australia’s most prestigious professions . During the form, Julia declared she will no longer stand for the patriarchal culture, and had proceeded to lay the foundations for other women that would like to come forward, speak out, and eradicate the ‘old boys’ club that exists for women in all workplaces.
When speaking on ‘fighting unconscious bias from the top down’, with Joanna Abraham, Bianca Bowron-Cuthill, Sheetal Deo, and Anthony Bryce one panelist said “I always say culture eats strategy for breakfast”. This sparked a conversation among the panel, which has resonated with me since the forum. While this statement can be interpreted in many ways, in my view, it means no matter how flawless your game plan is, if you cannot implement a safe, honest, and positive workplace culture, your strategy is going to fall through the cracks.
Each individual that spoke at the Women in Law forum had their own story, their own direct experience of powerlessness, sexism, and misogyny. As an individual, they have each been empowered to change the toxicity of the legal profession. But the key takeaway? Together, we can make a more significant difference.
In Australia, we have seen many social changes. Women have the vote, the legalisation of same-sex marriage in 2017, and we will soon to see the introduction of a bill that welcomes First Nations voice into parliament. As society changes, our workplace culture must change with it. Let the law be set by precedent, but culture in the workplace that adversely affects women, just be privy to change.
Did you know, that if you have a Chinese sounding name, you are required to apply 66% more times than someone with an Anglo-Saxon sounding name?
I certainly didn’t. This is not only the case, but it was the highest percentage provided for among all ethnic groups when presented in Mariam Veiszadeh’s Speech addressing the unconscious bias and its amplification for women and minority groups.
On 24 November 2022, Claire and I attended the Women in Law Forum. The forum was launched to initiate conversation and address fundamental and long-standing issues pertaining to women in the legal sector who now dominate 52% of the legal sphere and one of the areas that were explored surrounded the words intersectionality, racism and discrimination.
Racism and discrimination are uncomfortable to talk about and frankly, I still feel as if I am not qualified to talk about it. Despite being a person of Vietnamese and Chinese descent who is also a woman, I have been incredibly fortunate to have had really positive experiences in my both my personal life and professional career. However, when presented with the statistic, it highlighted the institutional structures and barriers that surround me which I may have just accepted as ‘the way of life’. I have never properly stopped to consider that maybe the effort I put in may be notably disproportionate to achieve the same outcome as someone else. Having to break through a double-glazed glass ceiling as it were.
This was further discussed in the proceeding panel which addressed how to fight this unconscious bias. Notably, Sheetal Deo’s discussion was particularly insightful and a view I found myself to align with. Particularly, it was the balance of her acknowledgement of privilege and her encouragement for women to engage critically and challenge the inherent bias that are exist around us that stood out.
Through innovating and daring and breaking out of the traditional structures just as many women have already done, it becomes apparent that women and women of minority groups can break through the glass, whether it be double glazed or even triple glazed ceilings that we are presented with. Through challenging these existing (and somewhat outdated) structures and creating new ones that work for us, women can positively change the narrative and work to address the unconscious bias that surrounds us.
It is affirming to be part of a firm that perpetuates this narrative. It is refreshing to see such a diverse group of people with whom I get to work with and can proudly say that I am a part of the Balance team. The culture in the firm has also allowed me to work flexibly, experience exponential growth in my role and brought me to the very forum which I talk about in this blog.
The Women in Law Forum was a valuable experience that has opened a path of conversation and critical thinking. Moving forward, I look forward to applying the insight that has been attained from the forum into my experiences in the legal sphere and beyond. I look forward to being a part of the narrative that no longer requires women to smash through these glass ceilings and instead, there will be structures in the legal sphere for us to thrive.