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How much progress have we made in promoting female leadership in law?

As the legal landscape evolves, diverse leadership has a critical role in driving innovation and fostering diversity and inclusion, as well as challenging traditional norms in the profession. Here, we explore the nuanced challenges marking the journey of women in leadership roles, emphasising the impact of female-led initiatives on career progression.

user iconLauren Croft 15 November 2023 Big Law
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In 2023, the need for women to advance within the legal industry resonates more than ever, underscoring the critical need for gender equity in law. Women progressing through the ranks not only signify a modern workplace but also bring diverse perspectives that enrich the profession.

Despite strides made in the profession in recent years, the gender pay gap still exists in law, with many indications that women are leaving the profession earlier than men, who make up the majority of leaders within the profession. However, the number of female legal leaders is increasing steadfast, with the profession becoming younger, more female and more diverse.

In conversation with Lawyers Weekly, ahead of the Women in Law Awards and Women in Law Forum, Holding Redlich state managing partner Rachel Drew reflected on her career in law and shared how legal leaders can do better and further support women in the legal profession.

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“There is an increasing number of female partners in law firms, more female barristers and women in judicial positions, including a wonderful (now) former chief justice of the High Court. It is important for women to have visible role models in positions of authority as it allows them to see that similar career advancement is possible,” she said.

“There’s often pushback against quotas and targets for women, sometimes seen as token gestures, yet there are strong reasons to implement them to address historical inequality and speed up the progress towards a more diverse and inclusive work environment.”

According to the 2022 National Profile of Solicitors, released in May, the Australian legal profession is larger than ever at over 90,000 practising solicitors, with women dominating on every front.

At the time, Law Society of NSW former chief executive Sonja Stewart said that in light of this data, equity and attracting female talent were likely to remain headlined issues in law.

“I think what this data shows is that the law is a really attractive profession for women and men, but it’s becoming more attractive for females, and that female solicitors can see a really rewarding career at all stages. And whilst perhaps they were leaving five to eight years post-admission, that may not be the case anymore. Australian solicitors are younger, more female, and they’re more diverse.

“I think that as we’re having more women, who are university students, not just in our profession, but overall, more female lawyers, who graduate from university, more entering the profession, and then you will see more women throughout all the stages of a career,” she said.

“Firms – and people who make key decisions – are now understanding the importance of a diverse and inclusive workforce in attracting the right talent, retaining the right talent, productivity, engagement and competitive advantage.”

Family-friendly policies and an emphasis on increased flexibility in the profession, particularly for working parents, have also become the norm in law, with Holding Redlich rolling out a parental leave transition coaching program accessible to all staff nationwide, including primary and secondary carers, last year.

The firm has partnered with Resilia (through the Centre for Corporate Health) to provide employees with up to three one-on-one coaching sessions to assist them with departing from work and transitioning back to work.

Holding Redlich has also recently reviewed its parental leave policy, which offers primary carers 26 weeks of paid parental leave regardless of tenure at the firm, in addition to full payment of superannuation for the first 12-month period of parental leave (paid and unpaid) for primary carers.

Challenges for women in law

Despite policies like these (which a number of firms have implemented) being a step in the right direction, there remain a number of challenges for women in law and women in legal leadership, as Ms Drew can attest to.

“Throughout my career, I have seen female lawyers face unfair expectations to outperform their male colleagues for similar recognition, advancement or pay. Overcoming this disparity is not easy, but it is possible. At Holding Redlich, we ensure our female lawyers have equal access to leadership and career development opportunities by investing in their professional growth,” she said.

“In recent years, we have increased female representation at partner and manager levels, kept our gender pay gap well below the industry’s benchmark and introduced various flexible work arrangements for all our people. This focus has earned us the Employer of Choice for Gender Equality from the Australian government’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency for 15 consecutive years.”

Recent insights released by WGEA show women are paid, on average, 88¢ on the dollar compared to men. This compares to 77¢ on the dollar in the private sector.

This means that in the private sector – including private practice law firms – the gender pay gap stands at 22.8 per cent.

In addition, data published in July this year showed that women in Australia work for 56 days after the end of the financial year to earn the same as men, with WGEA making 25 August Equal Pay Day for 2023.

Female lawyers are also more likely to face the “motherhood penalty” and be disproportionately impacted by inflation, with some saying the traditional nine-to-five is “redundant” and “sexist”.

Research from Diversity Council Australia (DCA) this year also pointed to a “gender flex gap” of 15 per cent.

Only 57 per cent of men reported using flexible work options in the past year compared with 72 per cent of women, figures that have remained stagnant since 2019. According to the 2023 data, the flex work gap appears to be driven by a stigma on men accessing flexible work options typically viewed as “feminine” or associated with care work.

Flexible working conditions are important for those with caring responsibilities, which disproportionately fall on women. As such, the DCA said that uptake in men accessing flex work to take on more caring duties is a crucial step in achieving pay parity.

In order to manage her own work/life balance while in a leadership position, Ms Drew emphasised that “your personal life is of no one’s concern”.

“It is important for you to understand your professional and personal priorities, develop strong time-management skills, stay resilient and learn to advocate for your needs. Law firms should also support aspiring female lawyers by investing in their professional growth and offering flexibility,” she added.

“Holding Redlich offers four flexible work arrangements, including flexible location, flexible hours, flexible leave, and flexible dress code. We encourage all employees to have open discussions with their supervising partner or manager regarding their flexibility needs so that a solution can be reached that accommodates both parties, the needs of their team and has no effect on our client’s service delivery. Over the past year, nearly every employee has taken advantage of our flexibility policy, and most of our employees continue to use formal or informal flexible working arrangements.”

Positive impacts of diverse leadership and female career progression policies moving forward

Earlier this year, Lawyers Weekly’s Legal Firm of Choice Survey showed that women and junior lawyers were among the most likely to leave their firms.

As such, Ms Drew emphasised that opening doors to leadership for other women remains important and that diverse leadership can have a positive impact on the overall performance and culture of an organisation.

“As leaders, we acknowledge the playing field isn’t always level. However, we could ask ourselves how we can use our position to help open doors for other women to advance their careers and receive the recognition they deserve,” she added.

“A leadership team that reflects diversity can better relate to and understand the needs and concerns of a broader client group that comes from various backgrounds and industries. This not only establishes a foundation of trust but also positions the firm to provide more tailored and effective legal solutions.”

This point has been echoed time and time again in the legal profession. Last year, graduate lawyer Sarah McKenzie told The Protégé Podcast that her firm had created an “amazing” culture and a supportive environment where women are promoted into leadership positions and young female lawyers are never left doubting that they can also move up into senior roles one day.

“When you think of the traditional lawyer that you’re looking up to, it’s Harvey Specter [from Suits], and it’s the stereotypical lawyer. But all the role models in my real estate team – from the senior associates I work with in Sydney, the partners in Sydney and the senior associate in Brisbane, and a partner in Melbourne – they’re all women,” she said.

Ms McKenzie said that having this female-strong team created this environment where she knows she can achieve the same “because I am seeing them do it”.

In recent years, Holding Redlich has placed an emphasis on increasing female representation at partner and manager levels, investing in the professional growth of female lawyers and launching their new flexibility policy.

The firm also has a national diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) committee with subgroups, early-career talent development to support graduates and undergraduate paralegals to gain qualifications as lawyers, and a dedicated learning and development team that delivers a comprehensive range of internal and external training and continuing professional development programs for all employees.

“Firms need to work on removing biases and barriers that impede the progress of female lawyers, including addressing unconscious biases in evaluations and promotions. Gender equality and diversity is recognised and supported in all aspects of our recruitment and selection practices. Appointments are based on merit, and the recruitment process is fair, equitable and transparent,” Ms Drew concluded.

“All our interviewers are aware of the firm’s diversity and privacy policies and understand and apply equal employment opportunity and anti-discrimination principles when interviewing. All candidates are assessed by a member of the people and development team against the requirements of the role. The process of assessing the suitability of applicants and selecting the successful candidate is objective and free from bias.”

The Women in Law Awards black-tie gala ceremony will be held on Thursday, 23 November, at Crown Melbourne. Click here to buy tickets and click here to view the full list of finalists.

For more information about the awards, click here.

The Women in Law Forum will take place on Thursday, 23 November 2023, at Crown Melbourne. Click here to book your tickets and make sure you don’t miss out!

For more information, including agenda and speakers, click here.

Lauren Croft

Lauren Croft

Lauren is a journalist at Lawyers Weekly and graduated with a Bachelor of Journalism from Macleay College. Prior to joining Lawyers Weekly, she worked as a trade journalist for media and travel industry publications and Travel Weekly. Originally born in England, Lauren enjoys trying new bars and restaurants, attending music festivals and travelling. She is also a keen snowboarder and pre-pandemic, spent a season living in a French ski resort.

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