Women in law should not be treated differently due to their gender – but equally it is vital they receive the same opportunities as men, writes Louise Massey.
International Women’s Day tomorrow (8 March) is an opportunity for members of the profession to reflect upon the advancement of women in the profession; where we have come from, where we are at and where we are going.
As I reflect upon the progression of my career I believe that I have been very fortunate in my encounters and the support that I have received during my trajectory, from both male and female colleagues.
In days when there was no formal mentoring or sponsorship, no career leadership courses, no developed and measured guidelines for advancement, you relied upon the support of your more senior colleagues to assist you in your career progression. I have had the strong support of senior male colleagues who informally sponsored me to partnership. Without that support my journey would have been protracted and maybe too difficult.
Gender war stories
I have also benefited from the fantastic support provided to me by my other female lawyers who work at my firm, in other law firms and also those who work in-house. We often discuss issues relevant to the industry and gender issues often top the list. There have been substantial improvements on gender issues in recent years, however the war stories shared by the women I have spoken with were unfortunately all too common.
There have been countless occasions where women have been the subject of inappropriate comments or moments when we have been dismayed at generalisations in relation to women or initiatives that have been implemented that reflect a broader male perspective.
Tangible examples include partner events which focus on activities for ‘wives’ and golf for the partners. A number of women in the profession have also made the comment that their initial application for partnership included questions around whether they were likely to ‘just go off and have children’.
Perhaps even more upsetting is that some women were informed that particular clients do not want a woman working on their matters or have been questioned as to whether they can work the hours required given they have children. These are just a few examples, there are many more.
In recent years I have happily noticed that many of these comments have diminished in their frequency.
The big hurdles
The career breaks for children and the subsequent return to work have been the most difficult hurdles that I have faced in my career. At the time there were few support mechanisms in place, little communication while you were away from work, no budgetary relief on return to work and no plans or support given to help you rebuild your practice. This has also changed immensely over the years and a lot of firms are now implementing programs to assist women through this challenging period in their careers.
With seniority you become empowered to assist, support and encourage junior female colleagues in their career trajectories. I strongly believe that senior women in law firms need to step up in their support for women who are coming through the ranks. Morally it is our only viable position and it has motivated me to play a leading role in ensuring that my firm has market-leading policies to support gender equality.
Given that in my year at law school there were equal numbers of male and female graduates, I am dismayed at why the partnership figures are not reflective of this ratio. Naturally, it is pleasing that the advancement of women has significantly moved forward; however, there is still a way to go.
If firms are serious about the advancement of women to senior positions (and thereby attracting and retaining junior women) then they need to embrace and act upon diversity initiatives. We have to take a long hard look at what we are doing. Change has to be cultural and to be led from the top. There is no point in just giving it lip service.
I am not advocating quotas or that we move away from a meritocratic assessment of candidates. What I am advocating is that women receive the same opportunities as men and not be treated differently due to their gender.
Diversity initiatives vital
The key to the above are diversity initiatives, especially those relating to flexibility. They assist all workers, not just females, in achieving a work/life balance.
The financial institutions do this extremely well. The Male Champions of Change lunch that I recently attended at which both Ian Narev, CEO of the Commonwealth Bank, and Simon Rothery, CEO of Goldman Sachs spoke, was inspiring. The ‘can do’ attitude of these leaders is refreshing. If large financial organisations can invoke rapid change then why not law firms?
As a member of Gadens’ diversity council it is exciting to see our diversity initiatives – which have the full support of the board and the partnership – gain momentum. We are looking at more transparent leadership programs, extended paid parental leave for the primary care giver (regardless of gender), unconscious bias training, supportive networking programs for women and a ‘stay in touch’ maternity program, to name but a few. Instrumental to these programs are the firm’s flexibility initiatives: we are enabling technology-based solutions for more accessible remote access, reviewing the timing of internal meetings and implementing a review program for applications for flexible work arrangements.
I am confident that the legal profession is on the right road. With constant application and support we can ensure that we have a more balanced leadership within our profession. It will benefit all of us and surely it will make our lives as lawyers more enjoyable and fulfilling.
Louise Massey (pictured) is a commercial litigator and partner at Gadens in Sydney