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Women take centre stage

Women take centre stage

Snide remarks, institutionalised bias, an old boys club. Margaret Beazley has faced and overcome all of this during her legal career. As a young woman from south-western Sydney, Beazley has…

Snide remarks, institutionalised bias, an old boys club. Margaret Beazley has faced and overcome all of this during her legal career.

As a young woman from south-western Sydney, Beazley has risen through the legal profession to become a Queen's Counsel, judge of the Federal Court and in 1996, the first woman appointed to the New South Wales Court of Appeal.

Beazley was the guest speaker at the NSW Women Lawyers Association Achievement Awards 2011 Gala Dinner in Sydney last Friday night (23 September).

Far from dwelling on her own achievements, Beazley looked towards the future in a speech to a room full of the brightest young lawyers in the country, male and female, and a selection of its established leading lights, including Greg James QC, Stuart Westgarth and Janet Coombs.

"These days we have just huge numbers. I mean, look at this room, we used to have just one table," she said. "That's important because it means we don't have to prove ourselves as a section of society that once didn't have a voice."

Awards were presented across five categories (see winners list below) with Elizabeth Evatt, a 60-year veteran of the profession, taking out the Life Achievement Award.

"The only prize I had ever won before 1951 was a prize for long attendance at my school, for 13 years' servitude at PLC," said Evatt in accepting the award.

Evatt was the only award winner to take to the podium during the evening, and she made a short but humorous speech, in which she "saluted" the advocacy of the NSW Women Lawyers Association.

"That is 60 years ago now [graduation], and in the meantime, I have had one or two awards, and I am very much hoping that this award, which has the same sort of long attendance in it - 60 years' servitude - reflects more about some of the things that have been achieved rather than the longevity of it all."

Evatt has had a distinguished legal career after becoming the first woman to win the University Medal for Law at Sydney University in 1955.

The niece of former Labor Party leader, Herbert "Doc" Evatt, Elizabeth Evatt has been a well known advocate for human rights, and has served as the deputy president of the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission, president of the Australian Law Reform Commission, chair of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and is currently a commissioner with the International Commission of Jurists.

While Beazley stressed that the awards night was "an event that is for celebrating, for supporting, for rejoicing, the achievements of a group of top lawyers, all of whom happen to be women", she reminded everyone in attendance that the fight for gender equality was far from over.

"I still have to ask the perennial question: Why aren't there more female partners in law firms?" she said.

"Why aren't there more female judges on the Supreme Court? Why are there masses of [female] judicial officers at the lower levels of the judiciary, but not at the highest level?

"There must be something operating there which is not just the old structural argument of, 'Oh, we had to wait for them to come through'.

"We are all through, we are all highly competent, so I think there is an issue."

And the winner is...

Woman Lawyer of the Year in Private Practice

Anna Walsh, director and principal, head of the medical negligence department NSW, Maurice Blackburn

In-house Woman Lawyer of the Year

Kate Perumal, general counsel, Abigroup Limited

Up-and-coming Woman Lawyer of the Year

Claire Hammerton, acting senior legal officer, NSW Aboriginal Land Council

Woman Lawyer of the Year in a Community Organisation

Emma Golledge, principal solicitor, Kingsford Legal Centre

Woman Lawyer Advocate of the Year

Julia Baird SC, chair, Women Barristers Forum

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