Where are all the senior women lawyers?

Yesterday, I stopped to get a coffee en route to work, at an establishment frequented by solicitors and barristers. As I waited for my flat white, I looked around at the other patrons, and counted the number of women who I thought were older than me.

I counted two.

I then started to count the number of men who were older than me, but stopped at fifteen.

A little later in the day, I attended a ceremonial court hearing to admit new lawyers to the profession. Usually about twenty-five practitioners are admitted in each sitting. They are dealt with in order of the seniority of the person moving their admission.

I was the sixteenth most senior mover. Of those more senior than me, only around a quarter were women. In stark contrast, as is usual, at least half of the newly-admitted lawyers were female.

Of course, the above anecdotes are evidence of nothing. Perhaps all of the senior women lawyers around town are busy working, not drinking coffee or going to ceremonial sittings.

But as things turn out, there is more scientific information available about attrition rates for female lawyers. In December 2012 the Victorian report “Changing the rules: The experiences of female lawyers in Victoria” was released. It observes that women have been in the majority of law graduates since the 1990s, but today women make up only around a fifth of partners of firms.  A similar project had been undertaken in New South Wales in 2011, resulting in the report “Advancement of women in the profession.”

The Victorian report also goes into some of the reasons why women leave the profession. Unsurprisingly, among those are systemic reasons.   For the reasons in the Victorian women lawyers’ report and in other reports, passively relying on the ‘pipeline’ to deliver senior women won’t cut it. Law firms and the private bar need to be proactive in making changes aimed at improving retention.  I hope that the Workplace Gender Equality Agency reporting that comes into effect fully next year will assist in provoking discussions and, more importantly, action within our profession.

Those new gender reporting obligations will require businesses to report as to:

  • gender composition of the workforce.
  • gender composition of governing bodies of relevant employers
  • equal remuneration between women and men
  • availability and utility of employment terms, conditions and practices relating to flexible working arrangements for employees and to working arrangements supporting employees with family or caring responsibilities
  • consultation with employees on issues concerning gender equality in the workplace; and
  • sex-based harassment and discrimination.

In our profession, the challenge will be for leaders to pay due attention to the research that is already available, and to the new information that will become available next year, and to act upon it.

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