The pursuit of gender equality and women’s rights has been a journey of both significant progress and persistent challenges.
The recent appointment of Justice Jayne Jagot to the High Court, leading to Australia’s first-ever female majority bench, is a landmark achievement. However, this milestone masks underlying inequities that continue to pervade the profession.
The Current State of Gender Equality in Legal Practice
While gender equity is being reached in our law schools, leadership positions in the legal profession continue to be dominated by men. According to national gender balance ratios across Australia’s universities, women comprise 55.7% of all Australian university undergraduates. In law school, women are reportedly outnumbering men. However, as women lawyers ascend the career ladder, their numbers thin significantly. In 2016, the legal profession hit gender parity for the first time. Since then, women solicitors comprise 53% of the legal profession, but less than a third of women lead law firms.
The Impact of Gender Inequality in Legal Practice
Gender inequality in the legal profession manifests in various ways, including a pay gap, lack of representation in leadership roles, and work-life balance challenges. The gender pay gap grows more pronounced above the age of 30, with a greater proportion of full-time female solicitors earning less than $150,000 compared to male solicitors. Over a quarter of males reported earning over $200,000 compared to 19% of females. This inequality not only affects women in the legal profession but can also impact the justice system and society as a whole.
Roadblocks to High Office
Parental leave has long been proffered as the reason why women face career roadblocks in their early thirties and beyond. While the profession has seen a growing majority of women and younger lawyers, women are leaving the profession earlier. Just over half of all male legal practitioners had been admitted for 15 years or more, compared to approximately a third of female lawyers, suggesting women are departing the law during their childbearing and caring years. This is often referred to as the ‘motherhood penalty’.
Strategies for Promoting Gender Equality in Legal Practice
Promoting gender equality in legal practice requires concerted efforts from law firms, legal institutions, and individuals. Here are some strategies that can be implemented:
Childcare Support: In a significant move, the Australian Government has pledged $4.6B in the Federal Budget to enhance childcare subsidies, raising the subsidy rates to 90% for families with low income. This development mirrors a potential wider policy shift that we could anticipate in the legal sector to aid working parents.
Parental Leave Policies: Numerous law firms, irrespective of their size, have put forth progressive parental leave policies. However, the adoption of these policies varies, especially among working fathers. A consistent application of these policies across the profession, coupled with efforts to address the societal stigma associated with working fathers taking extended parental leave, could transform these policies into tangible support for young families.
Pay Transparency: A somewhat contentious approach, disclosing the salaries of employees within an organization has emerged as a method some organizations employ to foster transparency. It empowers employees who earn less than their counterparts performing the same job to advocate for equal pay, or a route towards it.
Blind Recruitment Practices: This strategy entails concealing certain biographical details that could potentially trigger unconscious bias, such as full name, age, nationality, gender, or even educational background. This approach was suggested to help ensure that recruitment decisions are made purely based on the candidate’s skills and qualifications.
Awareness of Women’s Health Concerns: Law firms can gain from a heightened awareness of women’s health concerns and their effects on women’s performance and mental health. Offering support and accommodations for these issues can foster a more inclusive and supportive work environment.
The legal profession has made significant strides towards gender equality, but there is still much work to be done. The challenges are complex and multifaceted, encompassing everything from pay disparities to parental leave policies. However, by implementing strategies such as those outlined above, law firms can contribute to a more inclusive and equitable legal profession. In doing so, they not only enhance the profession for women but also improve the quality of legal services and the legal system as a whole.