The issue of retaining talent in law, especially women lawyers, relies on workplaces that are committed to dealing with discrimination.
That is the message of Law Society of NSW president Pauline Wright, who last week urged employers to ensure that their organisations do not “tacitly permit or tolerate a culture of sexism, harassment or bullying”.
The appeal to properly address discrimination in the profession comes over a year after the launch of the Law Society’s Charter for the Advancement of Women. Since it was launched in October 2016, the initiative has received the support of 179 signatories.
The charter was established to promote and support strategies to retain women in the legal profession.
“Power imbalances in the workplace can make reporting concerns or incidents difficult,” Ms Wright said.
“Women can face further trauma when their complaint is dismissed, rejected or disbelieved.”
Ms Wright underscored the importance of bosses nurturing a culture of openness and safety, where people felt supported in raising their concerns or making a complaint. While the introduction of formal strategies and processes were important key steps, the Law Society president added that those measures were not enough on their own.
A panel of eminent women leaders in law discussed similar challenges that the legal profession had to overcome before it could claim there was true equal opportunity for both men and women.
The conversation was timely following salacious allegations in October that Sydney barrister Charles Waterstreet sexually harassed a 21-year-old law student employed as a paralegal in his chambers. Mr Waterstreet strenuously denied the claims of lewd and inappropriate conduct against Sydney law student Tina Huang and published a statement defending his position in the Sydney Morning Herald.
Ms Wright suggested that properly dealing with discrimination in the legal profession was a crucial component of any strategy to attract and retain talented female staff.
“Some women may not even recognise when they have been sexually harassed, perceiving it only to involve physical acts such as unwanted touching rather than other offensive, humiliating or intimidating behaviour including staring, suggestive comments, unwanted invitations or intrusive questions,” she said.