Legal careers have paved the way for many women at the helm of Australian leadership, writes Angela Priestley, yet hidden inequalities still exist within the law.
When Governor-General Quentin Bryce swore in Julia Gillard as the Australian Prime Minister, few could ignore the historical significance of the moment. Although many would claim that gender is, or at least should be, irrelevant, both women have clearly broken ground on two significant Australian firsts: the first female governor-general and the first female prime minister.
Both women have also graduated from law and it seems legal careers have provided the launch pad for these women to become the great equalisers of our time.
While Gillard cut her teeth in industrial law as a partner at Slater & Gordon, Bryce was admitted to the Queensland Bar but never practised, instead lecturing in law for much of her early career before eventually entering public life.
Gillard's appointment, as with that of Bryce two years ago, should not be celebrated on the basis of gender alone, but such appointments can provide a catalyst for change in the future. The rise of these two women must also be placed in the broader context of an Australia quickly succumbing to the necessity of diversity, most distinctly noted through the fact that for the first time three women now account for seven of the judging posts on the High Court of Australia.
Law, it seems, is providing some great opportunities to shake up the gender imbalance that has existed for so long around Australian leadership. But are such achievements enough to shake up the engrained gender discriminations that still exist within the law?
The numbers come up
With more and more women coming through the ranks of politics, it was somewhat inevitable that one day a woman would be prime minister.
So does the gender of our new prime minister really need celebrating? According to George Williams, a law academic at the University of New South Wales and co-author of Women and Public Law to be published in Women and the Law in Australia later this year, the absence of women in public law for so long means the appointment of our first female prime minister matters. "These two appointments, a female governor-general and prime minister, indicate major turning points," he says.
Still, Williams concedes that such appointments will not necessarily be the game-changers some might expect. He believes that there are engrained gender discriminations in the very foundations of law - notably in the Constitution - that will continue to discriminate against women.
"There are deep substantive problems in the law which will require law reform and larger changes that no individual appointment can address, and they include the fact that we have a system of public law written for the 1890s and it shows. It still reflects the values and beliefs of what was a very unequal society at that point."
Williams believes that if we are serious about having an equal, fair, open and inclusive system of government, then modernising the Constitution would be a good place to start.
He says that the problem is not so much what the Constitution says about women, but rather what it doesn't say. He makes particular reference to the judicial appointment process which provide a significant hindrance to the number of women in the judiciary. A system of merit and patronage is no good for women if they have no informal and/or formal links to such a system.
But adjusting the Constitution is obviously no easy feat, no matter how many women lead from the top. Of the 44 attempted amendments, only eight have been successful since 1901.
Patricia Easteal, socio-legal academic and editor of Women and the Law in Australia, questions just how far law reform and policy can go in addressing what she labels "hidden gender discriminations." According to Easteal, gender inequalities in politics are cultural, and thus a cultural change must be enacted.
That may require leadership from both men and women and an acknowledgement that not all women publicly cracking the glass ceiling wish to be recognised as trailblazers. And few, it seems, wish to bare the burden of being expected to act for legal, cultural and social reforms in order to ensure the glass ceiling remains cracked long enough for women behind them to also rise through.
Margaret Thatcher is a great case in point. Having reached the highest point of British politics she showed little interest in addressing some deeper problems of gender equality - a fact that left many feminists disappointed in her achievements.
Law school, the great differentiator
No matter what impact women lawyers reaching the pinnacles of leadership in Australia have on our system of law, it's difficult to deny their role model status for encouraging the success of female law students and young women lawyers starting their careers.
Williams, who says he saw the lack of female High Court judges at the turn of the millennium in the attitudes of his female students regarding so-called limitations in their careers, believes role models in politics can make a big difference. "I think you look at people like Julia Gillard and others, and you look at what a law degree can deliver and undoubtedly her appointment will lead more female students to say, 'Well, if I want to change the world, a law degree is what I should be thinking of'."
According to Australian Women Lawyers president Olivia Perkess, we should be wary of placing too much emphasis on Gillard's gender, but still appreciate the significance of the historic event - especially for women lawyers. "This and other great achievements for women lawyers will have a positive impact on the number of women studying law in Australia, which if we play our cards right, will have an increase in the rise of women lawyers," she says.
Perkess adds that the retention of women lawyers is still a key issue facing the legal community, and highlights the fact that in 2010, before Gillard's appointment as prime minister, new policies such as paid parental leave and greater child care assistance looked set to ease the burden between work life balance that many women face today.
Easteal however, is not so sure that Gillard's appointment will make any difference. She questions just what Gillard's rise to the top means if she has had to become part of a dominant male culture to get there. Meanwhile, she adds, the progression of bright talented women through law school is still not being reflected in numbers within the upper echelons of law and politics.
Women have been graduating from law school at a rate of more than 50 per cent since the 1990s. It's been two decades of equal representation at the graduate level, and yet such representation is still not filtering through to leadership positions. And rarely, says Easteal, do women who make it to significant leadership positions ever stretch their roles to make them more inclusive of gender issues.
"I just don't see how having a woman at the top, no matter whether she's 'sharey, carey, or authentically female', whether it really makes any difference. I don't think you can change cultures that quickly I'm afraid."
But cultures can change over time, especially if the "firsts" achieved by women are followed up with "seconds" and "thirds". Increasingly, in Australian politics, that's looking more likely.
Once again, however, Margaret Thatcher's achievement in 1980s Great Britain may point to the contrary. Her breakthrough resulted in few more women being appointed to prominent positions, a situation also reflected in the High Court of Australia. Although Justice Mary Goudron was appointed as the first female to the High Court in 1987, it was almost another 20 years before a second female was appointed. Today, three women sit on the High Court, a situation that should be celebrated but that still can't make up for the significant "hiatus" of women, as Williams puts it, prior to their advance.
A lack of female High Court judges may be a reflection of the merit and system of patronage backing such appointments, of which, like Williams points out, is cemented in the Constitution. In politics however, things have and continue to change - encouraging the participation of women in the process.
The number of women currently holding seats in parliament may well be a reflection of the introduction of quota systems alongside mentoring and training opportunities implemented for women by both the Liberal and Labor parties. While still by no means equal to the number of men, the rising number of women represented in parliament made a female prime minister inevitable. Should such numbers continue into the future, another woman will repeat Gillard's achievement.
Until then, women will continue to rise through the ranks of politics armed with law degrees. Deputy opposition leader Julie Bishop practised as both a barrister and solicitor before entering politics, as did a number of other women holding seats in the House of Representatives.
Whether law degrees attract the brightest women, or such degrees churn out the highest achievers, is a debate akin to the chicken or the egg. But there's little doubt that women are rising to the top with education and/or significant careers in law. Further cultural, policy and social reform in the interest of women may have to come later.