True gender diversity across the legal profession could pay dividends for Australian business, politics and the community as a whole writes Angela Priestley
In a week that has seen the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day celebrated via a debate on whether or not this country requires quotas to get more women on boards, it's fitting to consider the contribution the legal profession makes to gender diversity.
Some of Australia's key politicians emerged from the legal profession - including our prime minister and deputy opposition leader - while according to Lawyers Weekly analysis more than 40 of the 176 females on the boards of ASX 200 companies had long and senior careers as lawyers before moving into executive positions.
Clearly business, politics and the community benefit from gender diversity within the legal sector. The profession offers a pipeline of women with senior legal experience who frequently apply their skills to alternate fields later on.
Unfortunately, the pipeline is narrow and still not dramatically widening despite the gender diversity initiatives of law firms and despite the fact a number of law firms were amongst the 98 organisations declared by EOWA as being "Employers of Choice" for women this week.
According to Lawyers Weekly's 2010 partnership data, just 18 per cent of partnership appointments at 33 of Australia's largest law firms were female in the mid-year partnership rounds. Meanwhile, women still only account for around 15 per cent of partners in commercial law firms across Australia.
The reality is women are still graduating from law at a greater proportion than men (NSW Women Lawyers puts the portion of female law graduates at 60 per cent) and yet such numbers are not reflected in the senior leadership positions across the sector.
There's also the problematic "ten-year itch" affecting women in the profession where anecdotal evidence frequently discussed by Australian Women Lawyers suggests that women are leaving the profession and/or opting out of pursuing partnership and senior positions after only a decade or so of working in law firms.
The legal profession can play a role in diversifying leadership positions across business and politics, but it must first get its own house in order by better supporting women.
That means doing more than offering women support groups, mentoring opportunities and the option for flexible working arrangements.
As Mary Anne Ryan, president of Australian Women Lawyers told Lawyers Weekly this week, the real problem for women in the legal profession is the lack of choices available to them once they progress both their domestic and professional lives.
The challenges frequently centre on women returning to work following pregnancy, a lack of part-time work and lesser quality of work for part-time employees.
"Women shouldn't be penalised for producing the next generation," she said. "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?"
NSW Women Lawyers president Rebecca Barry raised similar concerns this week and urged law firms to offer more support for women lawyers.
"I am not referring to mere encouragement. I am talking about the practicalities around maternity leave, equal pay and support structures such as widespread mentoring," she said.
It's clear legal employers must strive to create a gender balancing culture: one that recognises that flexible work opportunities are the domain of both men and women, that rewards efficiency and effectiveness over billable hours and time spent in the office alone, and appreciates that diversity can offer better client service and justice outcomes.
With the broader support from law firm leaders and a change of mindset about what gender diversity means and why it's so important, we may finally see that high proportion of female law graduates succeed in the upper echelons of the sector.
Following that, those graduates may also go a long way to support the ASX 200 listed organisations and our political parties in their gender balancing ambitions.
It might even help to bolster the 25 per cent of general board positions women accommodate outside the ASX 200, according to Women on Boards, and create a more diversified business and political environment in the process.