Women in Law



Although women make up a majority of the legal industry, gender disparity in the workplace remains a considerable hurdle to women in law. Currently, almost 70% of the legal sector is made up of women. According to a 2019 survey conducted by Pitcher Partners, 64% of new graduates in law are female, with 36% being male. Despite this, only 12.9% of females are principal solicitors in legal practices. For every 100 women promoted to partner, 141 men are promoted. And, as of 2019, only 3.4% of managing partners are women. This data suggests that the ability for women to achieve upward mobility in the legal profession is significantly hindered due to their gender.


Several factors have prevented women from reaching the top of their field in the legal sector. In a recent dissertation paper published by the Women's Legal Service Victoria, it was found women in law face gender stereotypes, gendered task allocation, punishment for domestic duties, objectification, and sexual harassment in the workplace. By comparison, men often felt that their gender was advantageous, or, at the very least did not hinder their ability to advance their career.


“As a white man, I feel that I am taken more seriously than some of my more experienced female colleagues. I feel that I am given more opportunities and also am taken more seriously by judicial officers.”


Research has shown that individuals treat characteristics like gender, age, and race as having evidentiary relevance about a person’s future ability in their career. According to Kanter’s theory (1977), people and therefore men are more willing to trust and get along with socially similar others. Since men hold these positions of power, unintentional bias against women, or, a preference to work with those similar to them, may be the reason why women are continually being overlooked in the workplace. Due to this bias, some studies have found that women must therefore have stronger performance records than men do and in effect, must meet a higher standard of performance in order to move up the corporate ladder.


“One of my colleagues was denied promotion because her boss explicitly said he wanted to work with a bloke. She ended up leaving the corporate law firm.”


An undeniable and significant factor affecting many women’s careers is having a family. Flexibility is key in supporting women in law as they are often expected to take on both productive and reproductive roles for their families. Despite this, many firms insist on a certain number of billable hours. Although this requirement is applied to men and women across the board, this highlights how equal treatment does not ensure fair treatment.


While women are forced to work flexible hours to be the caretakers of their family, they can be overlooked for major clients and important cases. Subsequently, the smaller clients they’re left with often cannot fulfil their billable hour requirements. Therefore, without specific strategies to circumvent this, the billable hour model itself may continue to inadvertently lend itself to men and further disadvantage women in the legal sector.


Even women who choose not to have children can be disadvantaged by gender biases. Unfortunately, not only mothers, but all women considered to be of ‘child bearing age’ can be subjected to unfavourable treatment, as their loyalty to their job and commitment are called into question by firms. Due to a combination of these factors, the gender pay gap currently sits at 26.2% for full-time employees in the legal industry. This exposes a significant problem within our industry, especially considering this gap is higher than other comparable industries. Due to these obstacles, many women practicing law decide to leave traditional firms, seeking more equitable working conditions.


“…[O]n paper, the firm liked to promote itself as being an employer of choice for women and had a generous maternity leave policy – in practice, there was systemic bias against women in that workplace … I returned from 12 months maternity leave on a part time basis and was not supported to achieve billing targets. I was not allocated the kind of work that enabled me to achieve these targets because I was not in the office 5 days. I have now left that industry.”


In an interview I conducted with Adrienne Trumbull, Principal at Hive Legal, many of the same sentiments as discussed above were echoed. While Adrienne said she had not faced overt discrimination due to her gender in the work place, she did feel that as a woman in law, she was presented with many additional challenges.


According to Adrienne, the structure and culture of traditional law firms are, for the most part, intrinsically focused on males. Yacht days, golfing expeditions, and boys clubs are a central part of the culture at traditional firms, and yet by nature exclude half of those wanting to participate. This ‘othering’ inadvertently creates a work environment that naturally sees men succeed while simultaneously preventing women from these same networking opportunities. In addition, the expectations of a purely physical working structure or staying back after hours adds to this exclusive work environment. By including these things within our work culture, we naturally prevent those who have other commitments, such as family, from participating.


The lack of flexibility afforded within more traditional firms was also noted by Adrienne as a significant hurdle. After Adrienne had her first baby, she no longer felt able to practice in a traditional law firm. Working with billable hours, there was no reward for working more efficiently and very few structures in place to support her in reaching targets.


In order for firms to change we need to move away from these archaic ways of practice and move into a more inclusive work culture for everyone. One way this is already happening is through Hive Legal. Both Adrienne and thus Hive Legal are big proponents of flexibility in the workplace and currently work outside the billable hour model, allowing for a work environment that can be fully inclusive. Hive Legal also allows employees to work remotely, providing the opportunity for working parents to be both an important member of the Hive Legal team, whilst being home for their children.


While there have been many great women such as Adrienne revolutionising the legal industry, it is important to acknowledge what men can do to champion equality in our industry. One way Adrienne suggested this is by having more men take up the flexible working options firms are now starting to provide, such as parental leave or working remotely. By breaking the stigma around flexible work options, workplaces can become more inclusive.


In order to combat both social and structural biases, firms need to start introducing flexible working environments that do not covertly punish women for having a family and address the gendered biases they encounter and perpetuate. On an individual level, men in law have the opportunity to usher in the change our industry needs. To make sure that their female counterparts are receiving the respect they deserve and are not being overlooked or excluded due to their gender.


Some formal progress has been made into improving conditions for women in the legal industry. Firms such as Maddocks and Herbert Smith Freehills have made the move to flexible and part time work arrangements and make ongoing commitments to closing the gender pay gap. A considerable amount of research has been done in the area and firms are becoming aware of what is needed to achieve true equality in the workplace. While progress is being made, there needs to be more discussion of the hurdles women face when practicing in order to actively push for these traditional work cultures to change.


References:

[1] Women’s Legal Service Victoria, p. 7.

[2] Jerome Doraisamy.

[3] The Law Society of New South Wales.

[4] Marc Brodherson et al., p. 4.

[5] Monique Robb.

[6] Women’s Legal Service Victoria.

[7] Women’s Legal Service Victoria, p. 11.

[8] Elizabeth H Gorman, p. 868.

[9] Elizabeth H Gorman, p. 870.

[10] Elizabeth H Gorman, p. 869.

[11] Women’s Legal Service Victoria, p. 11.

[12] Women’s Legal Service Victoria, p.10.

[13] Women’s Legal Service Victoria, p. 7.

[14] Women’s Legal Service Victoria, p. 7.

[15] Women’s Legal Service Victoria, p. 10.

[16] Adrienne Trumbull.

[17] Victorian Women's Lawyers.


Reference List:

Elizabeth H Gorman (2006), Work Uncertainty and the Promotion of Professional Women: The Case of Law Firm Partnership, Vol. 85, No. 2, pp. 865-890

Interview conducted with Adrienne Trumbull of Hive Legal, 13 January 2021

Jerome Doraisamy (2019), Female grads in firms outnumber males 2-to-1, Lawyers Weekly


Marc Brodherson, Laura McGee, Mariana Pires dos Reis (2017), ‘Women in Law Firms’, McKinsey & Company

Monique Robb (2019), Australia: Women in the legal profession, swabb


The Law Society of New South Wales (2015), ‘Gender Statistics


Victorian Women's Lawyers (2015), Addressing the Gender Pay Gap in the Legal Sector


Women’s Legal Service Victoria (2019), Sexism and Gender Inequality in the Victorian Legal and Justice Sector: Phase one discussion paper, Women’s Legal Service Victoria, Melbourne, Australia


Image: Lawyer Monthly


Anastasia Misarvidis-Tyshing is a penultimate year Arts/Law student. She is passionate about legal technology, intellectual property and social justice. In the future, Anastasia hopes to continue to write important commentary on social justice issues and the legal profession, in order to help create systemic change.