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‘To be a woman lawyer is already a disruption to the previous status quo’
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‘To be a woman lawyer is already a disruption to the previous status quo’

NSW marked 100 years of women being allowed to practice earlier this week, in a decision that “was perhaps the most significant piece of legislation affecting the NSW legal profession in the last century”, according to Elizabeth Broderick AO.

Speaking on Monday night on the 100th anniversary dinner of the passing into law of the Women’s Legal Status Act 1918 (NSW), hosted at the state’s Parliament House, former sex discrimination commissioner Ms Broderick – who is now an independent expert (UN special rapporteur) for the United Nations Human Rights Council – mused that despite the passage of the legislation, not all of those in the NSW Legislative Council welcomed the change.

The Honourable A. Sinclair MLC, for example, opposed the legislation, she noted, with the member saying: “I maintain that the real friends of women are those who do not wish to make them barristers…what service is it to a woman to make her a barrister?”

One does not need to look far, however, to see just how far women have come since that time, adding that “a century on from the admission of women to legal practice in NSW, women make up more than half of those studying law and … just over half of Australia’s solicitors”.

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But despite such progress over the last century, women in law have faced significant challenges and barriers to success, whether it be workplace harassment or discrimination, pay inequality, stalls in career progression following childbirth, among others – issues that those in attendance at the First 100 dinner would either be aware of or have witnessed or even suffered from themselves.

The struggles faced by women, especially those within larger law firms, was something that Ms Broderick became increasingly cognisant of in the early 2000s, particularly the issues of loss of valuable female talent and the fact that very few women seemed to be making it to the top of the food chain.

“It was from then on that I became passionate about trying to change the systems that were producing such disadvantage for women in law. This desire to ‘fix the system’, rather than to ‘fix the women’, has become a lifelong mantra.”

She knew, she posited, that she had a responsibility to use her voice to advocate for the rights of women and help create a more gender equal and just society – not just a more equitable legal profession.

This is a shared duty, she said: “It is the responsibility of all who are privileged enough to have gained a legal education. Those who supported the admission of women to legal practice did so not just for a handful of individual women but to move Australia forward – and we all have an obligation to do the same.”

That duty is more urgent now than ever, she argued, in light of “seismic shifts” in the sociopolitical landscape, both domestically and abroad, and democracy and human rights on the decline.

“In so many countries we are witnessing the shrinking of civil society space. Views and positions are polarising,” she commented.

“There are forces determined to bring men and women back to traditional gender roles – to adopt a regressive stance in the name of tradition and in a misguided quest to protect the traditional institutions of family, church and State.”

But lawyers are in a unique position to propel important change, she said, and women lawyers are themselves “powerful agents of change”.

“We are seeing women lawyers being part of movements that have swept the globe in calling for equality, democracy, non-discrimination and a strengthening of the rule of law. We have seen them flooding the streets, the airwaves, and the internet with their energy and their testimonials, bringing to light truths that are too often buried in darkness. We are seeing them take on powerful forces and achieving powerful victories for the protection of their communities and the world which we all share,” she reflected.

A hundred years on from the admission of women into legal practice, Ms Broderick continued, the law and other professions are aware that everyone will benefit from the inclusion of women.

“In fact, the economic case for inclusion in professional and civil life is as compelling as the human rights case. Increasingly, therefore, those who occupy traditional positions of power are seeing the inclusion of women as an imperative.”

And it is time, she deduced, for lawyers to not only continue to disrupt, but to acknowledge their unique positions within society and to recognise our distinct capacity to press for the aforementioned social and political change and thereby “edge our nation forward”.

“I have learnt that being admitted to the legal profession – of living a ‘life in the law’ – is indeed about finding that distinctive voice; and then using it to challenge the status quo,” she told the audience.

Echoing Gloria Steinem, she espoused that “to be a woman lawyer is already a disruption to the previous status quo”.

“But, having disrupted that status quo 100 years ago, we are now in a position to use the conventions and mechanisms of our profession to better the lives of people everywhere.”

“My life in law has provided me with opportunities I could never have imagined but also with huge responsibility – responsibility to speak when I see unfairness, to disrupt the status quo, to create opportunities for women, to raise my son and daughter to believe that equality is the only path,” she said.

Such capacity for change is due, in large part, to the tireless efforts of those of yesteryear, Ms Broderick acknowledged.

Women lawyers have all “benefited from the activism and advocacy” of those who have come before us, she said.

“We have rights today as female lawyers because someone we will never know, most likely another female lawyer, advocated for us – advocated for our right to practice our craft, to work and care, to hold senior roles as lawyers, barristers, judges, to represent Australia globally,” she proclaimed.

“To all those who have come before me, many in the room tonight, to you who have laid the foundations for each of us, who have prepared our path, I say thank you.”

Photo credit: Law Society of New South Wales

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