Lawyers Weekly has recently run a series of stories touching on diversity and the associated issues of fairness and discrimination in the legal profession.
Some of these stories have been in relation to reports or presentations, while others profiled finalists in the recent Lawyers Weekly Women in Law Awards.
A consistent stream of invective from readers has frequently greeted such stories, with comments ranging from the hyperbolic and silly – “Getting tired of all these Femanist articles on Lawyers Weekly. Don't you see the damage Femanism has done to our society?” – to the just mean and nasty – “Modern women are ridiculously self entitled and a lot of women Lawyers are the most self entitled of all. Also known as the Princess Class. Expecting tax payers to subsidize their choice to have children and pursue a career as though they are doing the rest of us a favor. And we wonder why birth rates have plummeted.”
Spelling and grammar have not been corrected in the above.
After a string of such comments, one female reader related her own story:
“I can't believe some of the comments here. As a lawyer I have been told that – they have enough women working part time, that leaving at 5 30 to pick kids up is going home early, that I am ‘pretty good for a woman’, that I can't take a joke when told that I got the job because of my big tits, that said ‘tits’ are too distracting for me to work with juries... I could go on – but that would be whinging!”
Such a comment gets to the nub of the issue.
There is still a massive problem in the profession when a member can relate a personal story like that.
Think her experience is atypical? Think again.
The National Attrition and Re-engagement Study (NARS) released in March received nearly 4,000 responses, of which 3,801 were from practising lawyers. The vast majority of practising lawyers who completed the survey were women (just over 70 per cent).
The NARS found that half of all women claim to have experienced discrimination due to their gender, compared with just over 10 per cent of men.
A number of women also reported receiving unwanted advances, feeling objectified, or being exposed to inappropriate sexual behaviour, such as that described by the commentator above.
The statistics also tell us men still receive preferential treatment when it comes to pay and promotion.
For many, many years now, while a vast majority (more than 60 per cent) of graduates are female, a vast majority of judges, silks and law firm partners are male.
It is heartening to see male champions of change recognise that deep-seated cultural problems exist in the profession and they contribute to such statistics.
It is even more heartening when senior male figures such as Baker & McKenzie’s managing partner, Chris Freeland, seek to actively change things to make the profession fairer.
As one of the finalists in the Women in Law Awards, Minter Ellison partner Virginia Briggs, pointed out, seeking to retain and promote female talent makes good business sense.
Any commentator that denies there is a problem with diversity in the profession when the statistics state otherwise has no credibility.