Reflections on how far ATSI women in law have come
With NAIDOC Week kicking off this week, Lawyers Weekly spoke with two trailblazing women lawyers about their experiences, what issues are still being faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in law, and where to from here.
The theme for this year’s NAIDOC Week is “Because of her, we can”, and Kate George — who was the first Aboriginal person to study law at The University of Western Australia and was WA’s first Aboriginal woman admitted to practice law — said “incredible progress” has been made in accessing education, since her “daunting and challenging experience” of being the first to enter the tertiary sphere.
“When I commenced my tertiary studies, there were very few Aboriginal people enrolled at university,” she said.
“Now, there is a significant number of Aboriginal law graduates and practitioners, and the numbers continue to increase, so there is no longer the feeling of [being so much of a] minority.”
Herbert Smith Freehills solicitor Ashleigh Lindsay said women who had come before her broke down barriers to simply allow people like her to study and practice law.
“However, it has not gotten to the point where there are no barriers,” she noted.
“We still face struggles in simply succeeding in a demanding profession and continue to face ignorance. It is something that slowly seems to be getting better, but we still have a long way to go.”
Some Aboriginal women have unique barriers to overcome, that are hard to combat but need addressing, she said, especially if there aren’t family role models to make it in law.
“Lack of cultural knowledge can impact on the perceptions people hold about ATSI people and, in turn, affect career progression,” Ms Lindsay said.
“ATSI people come from humble backgrounds… growing up, we don’t learn the social skills to promote ourselves, highlight the things that make us great and worthy of being a lawyer, [which] again makes career progression difficult.”
Ms George noted that, for Aboriginal women, competing demands often mean personal goals and ambitions take a back seat.
“Family demands can often make practicing law a difficult one, and in situations where one has dependents, this can often force women into other areas of employment for economic reasons at the expense of law,” she explained.
There are ways, however, that the wider profession can better support the progression of ATSI women, she said, to help improve opportunities, increase the rates of graduation and achieve judicial ranks or other senior positions.
“I would like to see a system that supplements the income of Aboriginal law graduates, so they can establish themselves in the profession… it can be means-tested and time-limited,” Ms George posited.
For Ms Linsday, a better appreciation and understanding of background, culture and ultimate nurturing of growth is required, as she notes she personally feels “lucky” to work in an organisation that offers such support.
“We don’t require hand-holding, but acknowledgement and room to grow is required for some. Career progression of ATSI women should be promoted and the individual should feel they aren’t going to be penalised for being who they are,” she said.
For those coming through the ranks, she advised finding people who believe in you and learning from them.
“It is a difficult profession in which to find success, especially being from a minority background, but we have a lot to offer the profession and we need to believe in ourselves and be confident in what we are doing,” she argued.
Ms George supported this, adding that goal-setting, speaking up and self-awareness were all crucial.
“Put yourself out there as much as you are able, recognise and value your talent, focus on hard work that has got you this far, and never forget this… especially when things get a bit challenging.”
“When you might feel alone, remember that other Aboriginal women have gone before you and are willing you on to succeed.”
And, reflecting on the NAIDOC Week theme and her own legacy, Ms George said: “Having dreams and goals are incredibly important, and for most of us Aboriginal women, the impetus to achieve has come from within.”
“Our achievements are then able to hopefully inspire and encourage young women coming after us,” she mused.
Ms Lindsay’s resonance with the NAIDOC theme was closer to home, having lost her grandmother earlier this year and been so inspired by her relative’s strength and confidence in the face of adversity.
“It is because of her [that I believe I] can, and will continue to strive to, leave a legacy like hers, and advocate for our people the way she did.”