IT’S RARE to come across a gathering of 15 judges in one room — even more so for most of them to be female. The unusual opportunity arose when the Women Lawyers Association celebrated the achievements of women in the judiciary at Sydney’s American Club last week.
The impressive line-up gave a glimpse of the bright future of the Australian judiciary, including Supreme Court of NSW justices Virginia Bell, Elizabeth Fullerton and Lucy McCallum as well as representatives from the District Court and Federal Magistrates Court.
Fiona McLeod SC, president of Australian Women Lawyers and chair of the Victorian Bar's equal opportunity committee, opened the evening by predicting that with an Australian woman’s life expectancy pegged at more than 90 — a decade more than males — there would be ample opportunity for “women to move in and out of the law”. McLeod also foreshadowed further changes to the workplace stemming from recent changes to commonwealth and state anti-discrimination and equal opportunity laws.
A key theme of the evening was the celebration of success, of how far women lawyers have come rather than the distance left to travel.
As Justice Margaret Beazley said: “Women lawyers have moved away from the celebration of firsts. We’ve moved away from the celebration of the first woman on the High Court, Mary Gaudron, the first on the District Court and then the Supreme Court, Jane Mathews — that was really quite a different era.”
Barriers clearly remain to women’s advancement in the profession. Although it was not the focus of the celebratory event, all three speakers referred obliquely to the coming silks appointments, suggesting a degree of collective anxiety about them. Last year, only two women were appointed silk at the NSW Bar out of the total of 23.
“I still remember when I got the call when I was appointed silk, and I hope many of you will get that call,” Justice Beazley said.
The removal of the invisible barrier of isolation, or what Justice Beazley described as “peer deprivation”, is something that she believes will have substantial benefits for women in the profession.
“Things that are such a normal part of life (for men) at the bar, but were not quite the same for women — when the next female barristers may have been on another floor or building. But these things are gone. Look around. I’m not quite sure how women lawyers are distributed in chambers, but there are not many floors that I hear about where there aren’t a number of female barristers: the numbers have eventually come through.”
The numbers remain relatively low, particularly at the bar — but at a function of 200 women lawyers, her honour highlighted the importance of the development of collegiality among the women lawyers of today.
“There are issues that affect women and the ways women practise law. Every generation is going to have their own issues, whether it’s isolation or how you deal with children or all of those things, child care or having children.
“They aren’t going to change, it’s how we deal with them, and deal with them in numbers — that’s the great excitement … we can be a collegiate body.”
The opportunity for a night of celebration was welcomed by the hundreds of women lawyers in attendance, who shared the sense that the line-up of judges comprised a vibrant and exciting group — and one perfectly placed to continue the women in the judiciary debate.