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Legal industry celebrates achievements of women

Legal industry celebrates achievements of women

Along with millions all over the world, women lawyers of Australia will today (8 March) be celebrating their economic, political and social achievements over the last 100 years for International…

Along with millions all over the world, women lawyers of Australia will today (8 March) be celebrating their economic, political and social achievements over the last 100 years for International Women's Day.

Marking the centenary year for International Women's Day, celebrations in 2011 will be held across the globe to recognise the achievements of women since the first International Women's Day in Germany in 1911.

Now an official holiday in approximately 25 countries, including China, Russia, Ukraine and Vietnam, thousands of events are being held today and throughout March to inspire women and celebrate their achievements.

Performer and social activist Annie Lennox will be leading a mass march across London's Millennium Bridge, while in Washington D.C thousands will descend on Capitol Hill seeking a better world for marginalised women. Sydney will be hosting a major international businesswomen's conference.

Schools, governments, trade unions, charities and global corporations will also participate, along with a formal message being delivered by the United Nations Secretary-General.

On Friday 4 March 2011 the Law Institute of Victoria and Victorian Women Lawyers hosted a lunch to celebrate the centenary of International Women's Day and to honour Australia's first female Queen's Counsel, first female judge and founding chair of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Dame Roma Mitchell.

The Dame Roma Mitchell Memorial Lunch was attended by approximately 300 people, including Victorian Chief Justice Marilyn Warren and journalist Mary Kostakidis, who delivered the memorial address.

"We have taken great strides in the last century or so, particularly in the developed world. The right to vote in the early 20th century, followed by gains on three important fronts - in education, in the workplace and in home life - in our quest for equality of opportunity," Kostakidis said.

"In many professions, equality of opportunity is still a work in progress ... our big work in progress is on the home front."

Since Australia's first female law graduate Ada Evans received her LLB from the University in Sydney in 1902 and Victorian Flos Greig became the first woman to enter the legal profession in 1905, the profession has come a long way in its recognition and advancement of female lawyers.

Speaking at the opening of Australian Women Lawyers (AWL) back in 1997, Australia's first female High Court judge Mary Gaudron said the organisation's launch marked the beginning of a new era for women and women lawyers.

"An era in which people realise that equality, equal justice and equality of opportunity are complex ideas, difficult to implement and achievable only by the sustained efforts of those committed to those ideals. They are not achievable simply on the basis that the doors are open, be they held open or battered down," Gaudron said.

Fast forward to 2011 and those sustained efforts have helped to ensure Australian women lawyers are increasingly represented in the top ranks of leadership, including Australia's first female prime minister and former Slater & Gordon partner Julia Gillard, and the first female governor-general Quentin Bryce.

Greater representation of women within the judiciary has also been achieved with three women now forming part of the seven judging posts on the High Court of Australia.

In recognition of another pioneering female lawyer, in January this year Australia's first woman to preside in a Federal Court and the first chief judge of the Family Court of Australia, Elizabeth Evatt, was honoured by Australia Post as an Australian Legend.

But despite the recognition and greater representation of women in the profession, it is well known that females remain under-represented in the ranks of senior partnerships and management roles.

Back in 1925 Dorothy Somerville established Australia's first female legal partnership with Mary Tenison Woods. However, in 2011 law firm partnerships and senior positions are still dominated by men, with equality still an ongoing issue for female lawyers across the country.

"The real problem is the lack of choices for women once they progress in their domestic life as opposed to their professional life. There has been improvement but I think everyone acknowledges that there needs to be greater improvement," said Australian Women Lawyers president Mary Anne Ryan, noting the barriers to female lawyers returning to work following pregnancy, which include a lack of available part-time work and the lesser quality of work on offer for part-time female lawyers.

"Women shouldn't be penalised for producing the next generation ... Why can't we think in advance and plan for job-sharing, plan for restructuring, plan for days working at home or in the evening.

"There are a lot of options and employers tend to be a little simplistic about that. We need to reward and publicise those employers who are exceptional in how they support their workforce by being flexible."

Although there is still a lot of work to be done, Ryan recognises how far Australia and the legal profession has come.

"It's great that [pregnant women] are even able these days to get a job because don't forget in the 60s, women couldn't."

Briana Everett

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