With the percentage of women in law higher than ever before, more firms are implementing diversity and gender parity measures to ensure female solicitors get equal chances to succeed.
Following the release of the fifth annual National Profile of Solicitors report, Lawyers Weekly spoke to four female legal executives on what more the industry can do for women, as well as where they see the future of females in #auslaw.
As previously reported by Lawyers Weekly, women now make up the majority of solicitors in the country. Female solicitors outnumber male solicitors in the government, corporate and community legal sectors; and comprise 48 per cent of solicitors in private practice.
The report also found that since 2011, the number of female solicitors entering the legal industry has increased by 67 per cent, compared to a 26 per cent increase of men entering the industry.
Furthermore, women now make up more than 50 per cent of the legal industry, a trend first observed in 2018. However, for the first time in the report’s history, there is a greater proportion of female solicitors across all states and territories.
For Adriana Abu Abara, solicitor at DLA Piper and winner of last year’s Women in Law Rising Star category, “the more this continues, the better”.
“There is still a lot of progress to be made, but we are moving in the right direction. I can already see it improving, having worked with many female partners, and in a team of many diverse women,” she said.
“I know that isn’t everyone’s experience, but I’m hopeful that COVID and the various lockdowns (as awful as they are) have been an equaliser in the profession. I think that people are more inclined to pursue things when they can see themselves, and people who look like them, in the role. For women, that means seeing other, diverse women in the industry.”
Inclusion and diversity leader at Allens, Kylie Scott, said that when looking towards a post-pandemic future, “women entering the profession can look forward to working in an industry that reflects modern society.”
“The future holds such rich opportunities for women as the industry continues to navigate significant change. The last 18 months have transformed ways of working in the legal industry and the sectors our clients operate in,” she said.
Principal director and managing solicitor of Marrawah Law, Leah Cameron, who also won the Excellence Award at last year’s Women in Law Awards, said guiding and mentoring emerging female lawyers were key looking forward.
“As is the case in many sectors, women in the law have made great progress in advancing at all levels and moving toward greater levels of diversity,” she said.
“I believe that women have a very bright future in the law.”
However, despite the fact that over half of lawyers around the country are now women, barrister and president of Australian Women Lawyers, Leah Marrone, said more work is needed at the top.
“In the mid-1990s in Australia, women began graduating from law in equal numbers to men, that is, for over three decades now we have been graduating in equal, or more recently, greater numbers,” she said.
“As such the question should be, where are all those missing women who studied law but never practised? The question should also be, as we have been at or around the 50 per cent for some time, why is that number not yet reflected at the higher ends of our profession or at the Bar?”
According to the report, 52 per cent of female solicitors have been admitted for 10 years or less, compared to 38 per cent of male solicitors. This shows an over-representation of female solicitors in younger age brackets compared to males, as well as a lacking number of female leaders in law.
Ms Marrone said that this can be addressed with the use of “regular pay audits, pay transparency, and implementing better workplace policies and cultures addressing current structural inequities.”
“One example is looking at how we assess productivity, and what gets in the way of doing that more equitably, for example time-based billing practices have been raised as promoting inefficient workers,” she added.
Ms Scott echoed a similar sentiment and said that transparency was an important part of ensuring gender and pay parity at Allens.
“There are two key ingredients to reaching gender parity at the executive level – supporting individuals while continuing to highlight and tackle the systemic issues behind gender inequality, and doing this in an unrelenting, consistent way,” she said.
“This is a complex issue and there is no easy fix, but we need to focus on the benefits of equality for all genders.”
Each year, the Workplace Gender Equality Agency’s Employer of Choice Gender Equality (EOCGE) awards a number of citations to employers who are leaders in gender equality within the workplace. Allens achieved the “highly sought after” EOCGE citation for the 17th consecutive year in 2020, the longest for any of the major law firms.
Ms Scott said that the Allens career model, policies and initiatives have been developed with an emphasis on the engagement, professional development and promotion of women in the firm, which have attributed to the firm’s goal of achieving at least 35 per cent female partners by 2022.
“One of our key points of difference is our approach to parental leave. We’ve adopted a program that does not distinguish between primary and secondary caregivers, provides a temporary break from billable expectations for legal employees when returning to work and pays superannuation on the unpaid component of leave,” Ms Scott explained.
“This package has been crucial to creating cultural change for working parents and supporting the shifting roles within families. Shared care has become the new norm. All genders can be successful professionals and carers.”
Whilst a firm’s policies are instrumental in supporting gender parity, Ms Cameron said that senior leaders should lead by example.
“The most critical action is for senior leaders to role model the behaviours that support gender parity at all levels and enhance diversity. We need to see leaders taking time to pick up their children from school, take an elderly parent to an appointment and call out unconscious bias in hiring practices,” she said.
“These activities will bring about real change. Strong role modelling, combined with the practical changes to the way we work stemming from pandemic restrictions is a great opportunity for our sector.”
Ms Cameron added that COVID-19 has forced the legal industry to look at different ways of work – but that she sees this as an opportunity.
“I appreciate that working virtually, especially from home, is not always easy but I think it has also provided women and men a chance to re-think the time they spend in their offices or flying to meetings,” she said.
“I think this will be wonderful for diversity and for ensuring an improved work-life balance for everyone, especially women who are balancing family and work commitments.”
Ms Abu Abara added that firms accommodating women are of the utmost importance, particularly in a post-pandemic working environment.
“I think we’ve realised that flexible working actually works, regardless of gender, which has hopefully done away with any stigmas attached to the flexibility that accommodates people having a balanced, successful career,” she said.
“The industry as a whole needs to be more accommodating of the realities of being a woman in law. Everyone has different circumstances, which need to be taken into account to make it just as achievable for women to get into senior roles. There is no more one size fits all.”