President’s Report – May 2019

President’s Report – May 2019

Since taking on the role of the President of the WLASA, one thing has become abundantly clear to me as I speak to various members of the profession……the legal profession in South Australia remains starkly segregated from a gender perspective.

While there is no doubt that some inroads have been made to addressing this direct and indirect gender discrimination, our profession continues to be plagued by issues arising from unconscious bias, sexual harassment, the gender pay gap and the attrition rates of female practitioners, to name a few.

These practices have a profound effect on women’s opportunities for career advancement and access to leadership roles. They are harmful to self-esteem and morale and too often result in women leaving the profession altogether.

More needs to be done to shift the cultures and practices that limit women’s opportunities for career advancement and access to leadership roles.

Although there are some real barriers that we must overcome, I believe that in partnership as a profession, great strides can be made to resolve these issues once and for all.

The WLASA has been working on a number of initiatives to address these issues and we believe that the ‘Charter for the Advancement of Women in the Legal Profession’ (‘the Charter’) has a key role to play in eradicating these barriers.


What is the Charter?

The purpose of the Charter is to ensure that female lawyers in the South Australian legal industry are afforded as much opportunity in their careers as their male counterparts.

Despite the fact that women make up 50% of the legal profession, there remains obvious and constant barriers to their progression within the industry. This Charter aims to eradicate those barriers.

Any signatory to the Charter is committing to ensuring that female lawyers within their organisations are provided with equal opportunity and inclusive workplace cultures. This will, in turn, favourably impact on all members of the organisation and result in a positive business reputation for the signatory, as well as the South Australian legal profession as a whole.

The practical ways in which this Charter will be implemented by its signatories is as follows:-

  • remove gender and unconscious bias and discrimination in the legal workplace;
  • develop and sustain a culture that supports the retention of women legal practitioners and recognises their value in senior roles;
  • implement recruitment and promotion strategies that include gender diversity as an important consideration; and
  • encourage and support flexible work practices to assist women and men to better balance professional and other (notably family) commitments.

Signatories agree to implement these strategies within 24 months of signing the Charter.

Although these strategies are designed to combat a number of examples of direct and indirect discrimination that are prevalent within our profession, I have set out my thoughts below on 3 of the key issues that require specific attention.


What are some of the key issues that these practical strategies the Charter will combat?

Agile work practices

Significant levels of both structural and indirect gender discrimination continue to persist, particularly in relation to parenting and caregiving.

Employers are aware that one of the biggest impacts upon a female lawyer’s career is their commitments outside of work. Caring for children, is of course, a major factor but commitments outside work are increasingly broader than childcare. Over the next 40 years, ABS projections estimate that 25% of Australia’s population will be over 65. The fabric of our society is changing. Care for the elderly, the disabled and the young is becoming the norm. This means that many people will, at some point, have to care for someone else.

Unpaid care work still disproportionately falls on women. For every hour of unpaid work men perform, women perform 1 hour and 48 minutes.

Women are more likely to be working part time and/or in flexible time arrangements due to care giving responsibilities. This is often associated with poorer career progression, inferior job quality and limited access to work.

Women working flexibly in firms because of their parental or other caring responsibilities go to great lengths to fit into often inflexible organisational structures, processes and cultures not designed with them in mind and often with negative consequences for their well-being and job satisfaction. It needs to be the other way around. Organisations need to ask why  a job can’t be done flexibly and then do something about the answers. Women are already leaning in enough and leaning in, quite frankly, is not enough. It is workplaces, not women, that need to change.

So whilst many law firms already have flexible work policies in place, it is incumbent on them to ensure that they are giving employees real permission to use them. Firms need to create cultures in which flexible work practices are used widely and which allow lawyers to continue these arrangements as they move into senior roles. Further, the quality of work given to employees who work flexibly should not diminish as a result. The work being given to them must be commensurate with their experience and skill level.

This is also a challenge faced by male lawyers. Many male lawyers we have spoken to have informed us that although they felt like their firms have a good corporate culture they do not feel like agile work practices are an option for them because ‘…they did not feel like they had a good enough reason to request flexible work arrangements’ and their senior partners were ‘old school’ and probably would not support their requests.  Most of the parental schemes available to employees in law firms benefit the primary carer (which is usually a woman). Few focus on assisting secondary carers. If we are serious about encouraging men to work flexibly we need to improve this as well.

Closing the gender pay gap

The gender pay gap continues to haunt the legal profession.

Although almost 70 per cent of the legal sector is made up of women, the gender pay gap is 26.2 per cent for full time employees. This figure is significantly higher than comparable industries in Australia.

The first and most obvious way to help women in the legal profession is to pay them appropriately and fairly. We want female practitioners to be confident that the law is a profession where talent, ability and application are rewarded irrespective of gender or background.

Although the data tells us that some law firms are undertaking a regular pay gap analysis, the data also tells us that less than a quarter of those firms go on to report those metrics to the Executive or the Board. Even more disappointingly, only half the firms who analysed their payroll for pay gaps went on and identified the cause. Employers are only disadvantaging themselves if they don’t take that last step.

Law firms need to implement robust strategies that require senior management to analyse their pay data, report their results to the Board and then take proactive and consistent steps to rectify any disparity.

Sexual harassment

Recent research has found that sexual harassment is ‘alarmingly’ commonplace in the legal profession and Australia has amongst the highest reported rates of bullying and harassment.  In May 2019 the International Bar Association (‘IBA’) published the results of a comprehensive study conducted on bullying and sexual harassment in the legal profession. This survey is the largest ever global survey of bullying and harassment in the legal profession.

Shockingly, the IBA survey found that 30% of the Australian lawyers who responded to the survey reported being sexually harassed in the workplace. This compared with 21.8% in the United Kingdom and 32.6% in the United States. The global average was 22%. More than 60% of Australian respondents reported that they had been bullied at work.

Women lawyers in Australia reported higher rates of harassment and bullying (47%) than their male peers (13%).

Bullying and sexual harassment is completely incompatible with our duties as legal professionals.  As former Prime Minister Julia Gillard has so pointedly stated ‘…..The legal profession has a special, indeed privileged role in advocating for and ushering in change. Around the world it will be lawyers who are at the forefront of cases that test the efficacy of current laws. However, the legal profession can only step up to this role with integrity if it makes sure that its own house is in order.’

These results are beyond disturbing and point squarely to the fact that key decisions makers in our profession need to provide leadership around this pervasive issue that continues to be ‘normalised’ within our profession.


How can firms become signatories?

The purpose of the Charter is to generate genuine structural and cultural change across the legal workforce and provide meaningful action to redress sexism and gender inequity across the profession. Our attention needs to shift to solving the problem itself – the attitudes, cultural norms and systemic manifestations of sexism and gender inequality that disadvantage and harm women.

An engaging and responsive workplace is crucial to the retention and advancement of women in legal practice. The Charter is a major step towards this goal and I strongly encourage senior decision makers and partners to embrace the Charter and the assistance it provides.

The Charter will be formally launched at an event in August 2019. Further details of the event will follow shortly.

Further details regarding the Charter and how to become a signatory can be found on our website – here.

The WLASA has created a logo that can be used by organisations who formally adopt the Charter to publicly acknowledge their commitment to its principles. Signatories will also be listed on the WLASA website. The Charter and the signatories will be promoted widely via social and traditional media channels.

We very much look forward to your engagement and support on this incredibly important initiative for our profession.