THE “PRECIOUS LITTLE” power that women have in this country is not much greater in the legal profession, journalist, author and speaker on the rights of women, Anne Summers, said in an address to the Law Institute of Victoria (LIV) recently.
“Thirty years ago we began a revolution in this country,” Summers said in her speech, ‘Women’s Equality: Back on the agenda?’.
“It was a revolution that recognised the legal, social and attitudinal barriers to women achieving equality of opportunity as it progressed — as these barriers were ripped away — I doubt if anyone in this country escaped the ramifications,” she said.
But a year or so ago, Summers discovered that in fact “things were not as they should be”, she said. We had “stalled on our road to equality”, and “women were starting to go backwards”.
The legal profession offers no relief from a trend that discourages women from top positions, and which offers men the highest wages, she said.
In an interview with Lawyers Weekly, LIV president Chris Dale said he was anxious to have Summers speak at the event because “she makes this matter accessible”..
“[Summers] makes out a case for a lack of improvement for women in Australia. I think this is important, particularly what she has to say about the legal profession and the need to reassess the current position,” Dale said.
It was important that Summers speak to the profession so that these issues could be addressed, Dale said. He said he was also keen to ensure the LIV helps to facilitate change for solicitors, arguing the catalyst for change was Summers’ attendance and speech at the event.
The courts in particular are negligent. This is most obvious in the small number of female Supreme Court judges, Summers suggested. Acknowledging that in some states the situation was not bad — for example in Queensland 29 per cent of Supreme Court judges are women, and 22 per cent in WA — she noted that in Tasmania there were none.
The federal level mirrors this fashion, where “the higher you go, the fewer the women”, she said. Women currently make up 33 per cent of Family Court judges, but only 13 per cent of Federal Court judges and there are no women in the High Court.
As well, Summers said despite having paid the same fees and studied the same subjects, women graduates earn less. The Law Society of NSW estimated that last year the average income for men with less than a year’s experience since admission was $52,600. For women it was $44,000.
“When we look at the powerful public and commercial institutions of our society, we see that their top ranks remain closed to all but a tiny fraction of women,” she said.
Other areas of the workforce have also been affected by this development, including the Federal Parliament where 26 per cent of politicians are women. This was in fact an increase overall, but in positions of leadership, while there used to be two women state premiers, there are now none.
We have reached the end of equality, Summers said. “Although we never achieved full equality of opportunity between women and men in Australia, we did for a couple of decades at least have it as a national goal.”
Equality used to be on the political agenda, she said, “and no prime minister, however conservative, he — and the leaders were all, and still are, men — would [never] have dared challenge its right to be there”.
While we were making progress in the past, this appears to be no longer the case, Summers said.
For more stories about women in the legal profession, see our award-winning Women in Law section next week.