THE HONOURABLE Justice Jane Mathews AO last week gave a statement which suggested that while women have a great contribution to make to the law, inequality between the sexes continues to hinder female legal professionals.
Justice Mathews, who received an award for lifetime achievement and was named official patron of the Women Lawyers’ Association of NSW, told a captive audience in Sydney that despite the group’s diligence, “a woman’s life in the law is still quite different from that of her male colleagues”.
In her speech, Mathews said that gender is still a pivotal attribute in most cases and has “served to hinder women in the profession. I’d like to think otherwise, but all the evidence points in that direction”.
Mathews argued that the profession must look to break “the vicious circles which so often impede the professional progress of talented women”, and highlighted that women are still victims of a pyramidal structure. “At least now [the pyramid] reaches to the top, and it even flattens out a bit; but a pyramid it remains, with the women concentrated at the lower levels,” she said.
Mathews conceded that are no clear answers in the quest for equality. “The obstacles to the progress of women in the law have variously been described as glass ceilings, sticky chairs and slippery ladders,” she said.
Nevertheless she applauded the Women Lawyers’ Association for their contribution to women and the legal profession. “I congratulate the Women Lawyers’ Association for recognising and honouring their service.”
Recipients of the other achievement awards included Juliet Bourke, a partner at Aequus Partners, who received a special judging panel’s award and the most outstanding contribution by a member award; and Stephanie Pursley, a Freehills consultant who won the award for private or corporate lawyer.
Congratulating Pursley, Freehills CEO and managing partner Gavin Bell said that she had been an instrumental leader in ensuring fulfilling career opportunities for women. “Pursley has been an inspiring role model and mentor for so many women and men at the firm,” said Bell.
Like Mathews, Pursley acknowledged that there was still a “long way to go for women in the legal profession” and that there remained a great disparity between the sexes. She said that out of any Freehills’ graduate intake, roughly 60 per cent of the brightest graduates are women yet only 16 per cent go on to become partners. “This is a story in itself” said Pursley. “That statistic applies basically to all large law firms [and] quite a number of other professional industries,” she said.
The problem, argues Pursley, is that there are still structures in place which continue to privilege men. “It’s to do with the whole of our society, with our culture, which is still male-dominated,” she said. Pursley advocated practical changes in the workforce such as cementing effective work policy guidelines that go beyond the page and are actively “lived and breathed”. Though these changes empower women, Pursley points out that they benefit men equally, “because young men now want to have some flexibility to spend time with their family and have a better balance”.
Pursley admitted that while there is often a lot of goodwill associated with equality initiatives — and while gender generalisations are still onerous — it’s important to keep the issue on the agenda. “Being aware, understanding what the issues are … you’re empowered to be able to do something about it,” she said.
Humble about the accolade, Pursley congratulated the Women Lawyers’ Association as a whole for furthering the position of women in the legal profession. “Recognition is a kind of way of legitimising what we’re doing,” she said. Pursley hoped this recognition would provide a platform to “inspire other young lawyers to undertake initiatives to make it better for women”.
President of the Women Lawyers’ Association, Lee-May Saw agreed. “The myth that women lawyers are only suited to particular areas of legal practice or to particular legal workplaces is well and truly dispelled by the recipients of our awards.”