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Women urged to aim higher in law

Women urged to aim higher in law

Victorian barrister Fiona McLeod has urged the legal sector to aim for an increase in female representation across the profession - including a target of 30 per cent female equity practitioners…

Victorian barrister Fiona McLeod has urged the legal sector to aim for an increase in female representation across the profession - including a target of 30 per cent female equity practitioners and 30 per cent female QCs.

McLeod made the call at the Australian Women Lawyers conference recently, where she presented on what she labelled "systemic discriminations" occurring around gender in the profession, which ultimately affect the legal profession's credibility and strength.

Citing statistics from the law societies of NSW and Victoria, McLeod noted that despite equal or greater numbers of females graduating from law, females still account for less that 20 per cent of all partners and less than 10 per cent of silks.

According to recent Lawyers Weekly analysis of the latest round of partnership announcements by 33 of Australia's largest law firms, males are still four times more likely than females to be appointed to partnership.

McLeod said that overall, women lawyers should aim for 50 per cent representation across the entire legal profession - from the graduate level to retirement - and that women should seek out more information and research on why pay disparities between men and women in the profession still exist.

McLeod also referenced research undertaken by the Law Council of Australia (LCA) in 2002 to highlight where such pay discrepancies still occur in private practice.

She said that since 2002, only anecdotal evidence can prove that the pay divide between genders is still prevalent, and that the profession must come together to facilitate more research.

Speaking later with Lawyers Weekly, McLeod added that law firms are making progress in developing programs and policies that address the needs of women, but that much more work needs to be done.

"We still know that women aren't staying in the profession," said McLeod. "A number of firms have been very proactive and are quite prepared at the senior level to focus on programs that address their senior staff. The difficulty is, how does that trickle down to senior staff?"

AWL president Olivia Perkiss agreed that the pay gap can only be closed through the availability of data to prove that it exists, and that requires the cooperation of legal employers to disclose information.

"There needs to be a commitment to a decent study that will provide us with accurate data so we can go to these firms and say 'this is what's been provided in our reports, how can we work together with you to make you a better firm, and make our members happier people and hopefully solve some of these issues on retention?'" said Perkiss.

McLeod added that while legal employers may not consciously contribute to the pay gap, she believes they should address some inherent differences that exist between men and women

"I think women think talking about money is seedy and that they can demonstrate loyalty more by not talking about what they own," she said. "Culturally, men are more prepared to go around and say 'What do you get paid?'"

"When you look at the figures it's apparent men are earning more. Is that because they are just coming out and asking for it?" asked McLeod.

"Women need a mechanism to compare their pay to their male counterparts, and support for equal remuneration. We need to lift the shroud of secrecy to prevent access to information about pay."

Perkiss added that women don't have options in the legal profession if they are not getting paid what they are worth. "If you go back to work and you can't cover your expenses, that's not an option," she said.

Angela Priestley

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