Women lawyers have been finding their way through the cracks in the glass ceiling. Victorian Women Lawyers has maintained that the fairer sex still has plenty to complain about. This time the focus is on law firms accused of shunting women when they return from maternity leave.
A survey released last month by the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency revealed that more Australian employers are paying maternity leave. But according to Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner Pru Goward, it is time the government “matched this commitment” to ensure paid maternity leave is available to all women employees.
The issue seems to be particularly complex in law firms, where the focus is on women returning from maternity leave. Immediate past convener of Victorian Women Lawyers (VWL), Jo Renkin, said she has been hearing rumours of discontent. Speaking to Lawyers Weekly, Renkin spoke of off-the-cuff mutterings by partners at major law firms who go on maternity leave and then return on a part-time capacity only to be dropped from the firm.
“It seems to be something people don’t speak about openly, so those involved are unwilling to speak about it, they are under huge pressure to maintain their positions and by speaking out loud they don’t want to affect their own situation and future careers,” Renkin said.
Stories of women being quietly pushed from their relationships with their clients and not being allowed part-time or flexible hours upon their return are common. “In one situation, client relationships that existed had been given to someone else when she returned from maternity leave,” she noted.
Renkin lays the blame with firms that are not supportive of women when they return from maternity leave. She noted that the issue of part-time partnerships, and their frequent non-existence, is one that is hindering the work of women on their return. “There is a reluctance for firms to acknowledge that there is the possibility of part-time partnership or pro rata remuneration. They are not always willing to adopt these sorts of practices and are not budging on it.”
“It might mean that someone wants to come back and work nine to five instead of the usual seven to seven, for example,” Renkin explained.
VWL said it was keen to explore the issue closer and establish methods of permanently preventing it from happening. Last year it was discussed in some detail in order to determine how best to deal with it sensitively. Based on personal and confidential stories they had heard, they are putting together data and devising ways of attacking the problem. The best way to do this, they expect, will be to go public with the stories.
“Going public sensitively has been our dilemma and we haven’t worked out a strategy to deal with it yet,” Renkin admitted. “However, we are trying to encourage firms to be more flexible so that women just off maternity leave can work flexibly if they desire. We have received positive responses from some firms who want to know more about their options,” she added.
Renkin concluded by emphasising the need for changes in this area. She stressed that just because women are not at work and are having babies, “does not mean they are not dedicated professionals”.
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