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Centuries of disadvantage continue: women lawyers

Centuries of disadvantage continue: women lawyers

WOMEN LAWYERS are facing the same issues today as they have been for decades, according to the chairwoman of the Victorian Bar’s Equal Opportunity Committee, Alexander Richards QC.…

WOMEN LAWYERS are facing the same issues today as they have been for decades, according to the chairwoman of the Victorian Bar’s Equal Opportunity Committee, Alexander Richards QC.

“There’s been change, but the change that’s necessary is cultural and systemic — and cultural and systemic changes take decades, if not centuries. We’ve had many centuries of disadvantage for women at all levels of society and that can’t be redressed over 15 years,” she said.

Richards was honoured by Victorian Women Lawyers at the third annual Women Lawyers Achievement Awards dinner held last week in the Victorian State Library’s Queens Hall. Also recognised were Professor Jenny Morgan and Paula O’Brien.

All three women boast impressive career histories demonstrating a commitment to furthering the interests of women in the legal profession and women generally.

Richards described winning the award as a “cathartic experience” after many years spent at the forefront of the movement to advance women’s participation in the profession. Richards was the inaugural president of Australian Women Lawyers, an inaugural member of the Women Barristers Association and a founding member of Victorian Women Lawyers.

She said winning the award was a great privilege and that awards such as these were an important form of recognition.

“I think particularly in the case of women where we would say they are a disadvantaged group within the law, there is a lot of voluntary work that is done to try to address the imbalance — and that’s extracurricular work.

“Most people are purely volunteers and many have children and families, and the amount of time they devote is really very impressive. It’s just a very meaningful way of paying tribute to and acknowledging that effort,” she said.

The same sentiments are echoed by Professor Jenny Morgan, deputy dean of the University of Melbourne Law School.

“I still think there’s a big struggle around women’s equality, for all women, but lots of people are doing work to contribute to end that inequality. And recognition of that is important as it allows an opportunity to celebrate achievement as well — it’s not all doom and gloom,” Morgan said.

Morgan was acknowledged for her contribution to feminist legal theory and arguments against the defence of provocation.

Professor Morgan has written many articles on this defence outlining how it has operated in highly gendered ways to excuse male violence against women. She is also the co-author of the first and, to date, the most important text on feminist legal theory, The Hidden Gender of Law, published in 2002.

She has also worked to practically support women’s rights and justice generally as a member, and former co-chairwoman of the Women’s Domestic Violence Crisis Service; a former chairwoman of the Board of the Centre against Sexual Assault; and in 2005 was retained by the Australian Football League to chair a working party to address the attitude of its footballers to women, after the much publicised spate of sexual assaults by footballers against women.

The result of the working party was the development and launch of the “Respect and Responsibility” policy

Paula O’Brien was the recipient of the “Rising Star” Award, designed to recognise the achievements of a woman lawyer in the comparatively early stages of her career. In the ten years since she graduated, O’Brien has worked for Minter Ellison, lectured at the University of Melbourne. She was also executive director of the Public Interest Law Clearing House (PILCH).

She accepted the award saying she did so on behalf of her colleagues at PILCH and what they had achieved collectively. O’Brien said she was surprised and honoured and that she hoped awards such as these could inspire other younger women in the profession.

“I think it is important to acknowledge the achievements of women in a profession where in the past they have not had the same types of opportunities; and to encourage younger, more junior women like myself to stay in the profession and pursue high professional goals, and to see that there are real opportunities to succeed,” she said.

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