The Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission says systemic discrimination is stopping female lawyers from advancing their careers.
By
Kate Stowell

UPDATED 10:48 AM - 26 Aug 2013

The Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission says systemic discrimination is stopping female lawyers from advancing their careers.

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

In a report released this week, the Commission says 40 per cent of respondents had personally experienced some form of discrimination because of their gender.

And it's not just about having children.

Leaders in Victoria's legal community say they're concerned by the rates of sexual harassment, pay imbalance and women leaving the profession within five years of joining.

The corner of William and Lonsdale streets in central Melbourne is home to the state's legal precinct - with the Supreme Court, County Court and the offices of private firms dominating the streetscape.

It's here that thousands of young lawyers start their careers.

And more than half of law graduates in Victoria are women.

But new research has found many women don't spend long in the profession, and there's been a concern for some time that discrimination is one of the factors that drives them away.

Michael Holcroft is President of the state's peak legal body, the Law Institute in the Victoria.

"50 per cent of the female lawyers who take out a practising certificate, do not have one in five years' time. Sometimes people think 'oh well that's because they are leaving to have families'. That's not what the statistics actually show. The first child for a female lawyer, the average age is 38, whereas most of the people leaving the profession are far younger. So we've identified that there's a real issue with keeping female lawyers in the profession".

A new report by the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission surveyed 400 female lawyers on their experiences of discrimination at work.

They found evidence of sexual harassment, pay imbalance, limited career opportunities for mothers and a 'boys club' culture.

"It was a blokey culture. Client functions favoured male-orientated interests such as golf or football and some clients held their functions at 'male only' clubs". // "There is a definition pattern or culture of sexual harassment. Not at all overt, but very much lurking beneath the surface. I've never been 'slapped on the arse' or leered at obviously but there is a clear element of sexualisation when male lawyers, partners, label me and my female colleagues 'the girls' and make very subtle comments about appearance".

The Human Rights Commission report collected responses from across private practice, government departments and the community legal sector.

It found that 46 per cent of respondents had personally experienced or were aware of other women experiencing discrimination - defined as unfavourable treatment based on their gender, physical features, parental responsibilities, marital status or family responsibilities.

"I overheard partners say that it was a waste of time for women to work three days a week when they had kids. There is no doubt that females are wary of getting pregnant too early in their careers because they are worried that it may jeopardise their promotion prospects and chances of getting good work. Women with children find it is much harder to get good, interesting work".

Michael Holcroft from the Law Institute of Victoria admits it's not a good look for a profession in which the core duty is to uphold notions of justice.

"Look it is a bit of an indictment, but there's a couple of parts to it. Firstly, we wouldn't expect to see the same level of sexual and general harassment in the legal profession that we see across the society, but that's what this report says - they were very similar. This report involved self-identifying, it's only people who volunteer information, but even so, we expect to do better as a profession".

Victoria's Acting Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner Karen Toohey says the profession needs to implement reforms because the evidence shows the current culture clearly impedes women's professional progress.

"I do think there is sufficient [material] in this report [to say] there is a sector-wide. We know there are still issues around gender pay, we know there are issues particularly around [career] progression. If you look at the statistics on representation of women in the firms, you go from 50 per cent, 60 per cent in the first couple of years down to 10 per cent in some firms".

Workplace culture in the law and the very nature of discrimination reporting is another factor that is alarming to Acting Commissioner Karen Toohey.

"In a small sector like this, people are often concerned about reputation. So the fact that if an issue arose they chose to leave, rather than report it. I think that says something about the culture of these organisations".

Acting Commissioner Toohey says many respondents said they had no confidence in the internal systems for reporting discrimination.

She says some women felt they wouldn't be believed or taken seriously.

Michael Holcroft says he thinks the workplace culture of law, including billable hours and the need to retain clients, has interfered with the way staff are treated.

"Workplaces in the law can be difficult. We have a culture because of our justice system is adversary, it's not a collaborative approach, it's not a civil law-sort of approach. I think it's taken us too long to adjust and actually spend a bit more time looking internally at how we're managing our businesses. Sometimes you can get tied up with your clients, client obligations and the pressure of work but I think we just need to treat everyone a bit better".

Acting Commissioner Karen Toohey says it's in the business interests of legal employers to retain their female staff.

"Apart from anything else, there is an economic cost here. Clearly, it's in [the law firms] interest. The notion of a sustainable profession is really, really important, when you have such high levels of skill and experience moving out of the profession so quickly".

The report does show evidence of parts of the sector making efforts to retain female staff.

The Law Institute of Victoria's Michael Holcroft again.

One of the pleasing aspects of the report was that of the people who requested flexible workplace arrangements, 95 per cent of them were actually granted. We have lots of examples of people working flexibly, and people running their own business,

Looking forward, the Law Institute of Victoria has committed to working with the Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission on reforms to continue to highlight those in the profession who are working to retain female staff.

"A lot of us advise clients in relation to workplace relations, bullying sexual harassment we certainly expect that the legal profession would be a guiding light but at the moment, it seems that a lot of work needs to be done".