Women in the Legal Profession

I’ve long been planning to write something about the very important topic that is “Women in Law”.  You might ask why I care, given I look so rubbish in a dress – but this issue is too important to allow the half of the population to ignore.

When it comes to high achievers, we are spoiled for choice with excellent examples of accomplished and driven women. Both here and overseas we have inspirational figures to look towards. These are not just examples for women in our profession but awe inspiring figures for us all. Each with unique advice to offer on how to not only begin, but successfully sustain a legal career.

A big question I will also look at here is, what are those of us born with a Y Chromosome doing to bring about change? While yes, we have many truly inspiration female leaders in our profession, we need to look at a whole of profession approach if we are to make change at a speed faster than what could be described as ‘glacial’.

President Thomas Jefferson stated “men of quality are not threatened by women of equality”.  While Jefferson passed away 191 years ago, this quote is still as relevant now as it was then. So, almost two centuries later, why are we still having this conversation that should by now be fairly well settled?

Just last week Australiasian Lawyer published an article about the renewed calls for gender equality in Law.  While that article highlighted some of the extreme gender gaps when it came to barristers in the High Court, the results of the study were symptomatic of the larger gender disparity in our profession.

I graduated, and was admitted, along with a large number of talented women – but already I am seeing their numbers thinning within the profession at an alarming rate.

In fact, ABS data supports my perception.  In their early to mid-twenties, women in the legal profession significantly outnumber men of the same age:

Census dataSource: ABS 2011 Census – Employment, Income and Unpaid Work

Then the late twenties / early 30s hit, and the number of women employed within the industry plunges.  The peak age for women employed in law is 29 – with the number of women employed in law declining by a massive 11% in the single year between 29 to 30.  That’s right, more than 1 in 10 women who were employed in law at age 29 left the industry before they hit 30.  Between the ages of 29 to 60 the number of women employed in law declines by an average of 6.1% every…single…year.  Comparatively, the number of men employed across the same ages declines by just 0.3% each year.

Oddly enough, the average age for Australian woman to get married is 29.8 years.  Now this could be a complete coincidence – but I suspect it’s more than that.  Marriage obviously wouldn’t be the only reason for this steep attrition rate, and merely one of a myriad of catalysts for women to leave the industry.  To name just a couple there are gender pay gaps and glass ceilings still in place around the industry.  This then compounds significant issues such as the disparity in superannuation accounts when both genders reach retirement age.

Earlier this year, The Association of Corporate Counsel, a global bar association, published a report called “Cause and Effect: Why Women Leave The Legal Profession”. Their research showed conclusively that women in leadership positions is quite simply good business. Women in leadership roles are shown to have a positive impact on both innovation and revenue.  A direct quote from this paper stated that “both Fortune Magazine and The Wall Street Journal reported that women do indeed contribute to positive business outcomes, offering a wider variety of critical skills to their company boards in important areas, such as governance and risk management“.

In addition to recognising the value on the bottom line for a business, we need to recognise the importance of work-life balance. Talented women are being driven in droves towards roles as in house and corporate counsel because traditionally, law firms are not affording them the same opportunities. So we are in some respects experiencing a “leaky pipeline” in the legal profession and losing exceptional professionals due to outdated ideals.

We also need to look beyond the workplace for how we support and retain talented women within our industry.  Women so regularly show that they are as capable, if not more capable, as men.  Not only do they dazzle in their roles within the workforce, women continue to carry the bulk of unpaid work at home.  According to the OECD women around the world do an average of 4.5 hours per day of unpaid work – men do less than half of that.  This difference isn’t down to those countries with a more “traditional” (aka antiquated) notion of gender roles.  While western countries may see more balance between the amount of unpaid work undertaken by each gender, the discrepancy remains:


Melinda Gates has stated “This isn’t a global plot by men to oppress women, it’s more subtle than that. The division of work depends on cultural norms, and we call them norms because they seem normal – so normal that many of us don’t notice the assumptions we’re making. But your generation can notice them – and keep pointing them out until the world pays attention.”

So here I am, pointing out these assumptions and discrepancies.

Just one recent example of a woman standing up to make a difference is US Senator Elizabeth Warren. When speaking out against the nomination for Attorney General, she was silenced by an archaic rule which forced her to cease her speech, take her seat and disallowed her from making any further comment.

In explaining her censure to the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Yertle the Turtle) said of Senator Warren; “She was warned, she was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted”.

Unsurprisingly, this has become a rallying cry for women as it should for us all who dare to speak up for true feminist values. Women want the same opportunities and the same pay as a male colleague, but they really shouldn’t have to ask for it. Male senators took the floor and read the same speech as Senator Warren but completely uninterrupted and they were not forced to take a seat.

In the words of the inexorable Annie Lennox and Aretha Franklin – Sisters Are Doin’ it For Themselves. But why should they? Just as Dave Stewart helped Annie Lennox write such an empowering feminist anthem, I think it’s time that we as men stepped up to help our “sisters”.

Going forward, we must take the lesson of Senator Warren to heart. In the face of adversity, we must persist. Let’s balance those scales of justice once and for all.

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