Addressing gender inequality in the law profession

'Women tend to be proportionately overrepresented in legal segments which are generally lower paid'

Addressing gender inequality in the law profession

Women outnumber men across the legal profession in Australia, but they still face persistent discrimination and harassment, according to a recent report from the University of Sydney Business School and Australian National University.

The research looked at gender inequality and gender dynamics in the legal profession and what that would look like into the future of the profession, Talara Lee, PhD candidate at the University of Sydney Business School told HRD Australia.

The report, Designing gender equality into the future of the law, found that the profession’s culture of demanding workloads, ultra-long working hours, and a competitive environment were key drivers of burnout, work and family conflict, and gender-based inequities.

“Our research found women and men agree that significant gendered inequalities exist in the legal profession, and they see this playing out across multiple dimensions, including in relation to sexual harassment, bullying, access to prestigious cases and projects, treatment from clients, promotion opportunities, and support for work-life balance,” lead author, Dr Meraiah Foley from the University of Sydney Business School said in a statement.

So what can be done to improve gender equality not only in the legal profession, but in other sectors as well?

Gender inequality

Gender inequality is an issue across different sectors and occupations both in Australia and in other parts of the world, Lee said. And the way it plays out is different across various sectors and occupations.  

She explained that a lot of the work her team, and the University of Sydney’s Gender Equality in Working Life Research Initiative does, is look at the nature of those kinds of inequalities and how they play out in different areas.

“Generally, we have seen improvement for instance over the years in women's participation at work but there's also a range of inequalities,” she said. “There is still a persistent gender pay gap, 13% across Australia. We still see an underrepresentation of women in leadership roles.

“Women are significantly overrepresented in feminised workplaces, occupations like aged care, disability and support services, the healthcare sector, and they tend to be workplaces which are undervalued. So [they are] very important for our economy, very important for our community but they are significantly underpaid.

“There is poor access to secure jobs, there's poor access to career progression in those areas where women tend to work. And of course, there are issues of sexual harassment and gender disrespect across all workplaces to varying extents in Australia.”

Barriers for women in the legal profession

The Designing gender equality into the future of the law report highlighted that women have made up more than half of all solicitors in Australia since 2018. But there are inequalities that still persist, including how women are underrepresented at leadership levels, Lee said.

“In New South Wales, only 35% of partners and principles of private practice are women,” she said, “And also women tend to be proportionately overrepresented in legal segments which are generally lower paid, so things like community legal and government.”

The report also found a range of gender inequalities which posed barriers to the career advancement of women lawyers.

“For example, women lawyers and lawyers with carer responsibilities having unequal access to promotions and opportunities to develop in the workplace,” Lee said. “So things like unequal access to challenging projects or complex client cases. And we also found some pretty distressing experiences of gender disrespect and sexual harassment continuing to be a problem in the profession.”

Another factor that impacted women in the law profession were high billing targets – a performance measure that rewards lawyers who are able to work very long hours because they can charge more hours and more fees to clients, Lee explained.

She said the lawyers who may exceed those targets are “perceived as stronger performers, have access to more opportunities, and are likely to be promoted, to have access to better promotions and make their way through the ranks, particularly in private practice.”

“This is a performance measure that has historically hindered women's career advancement,” Lee said. “And our research showed that they continue to do so for lawyers with significant care responsibilities, the majority of whom are currently women in the legal profession and also within Australia more generally.”

Those care responsibilities may include childcare, elder care, care for people with disabilities, Lee said.

“And we know from our conversations with our participants but also from the existing evidence that women lawyers are more likely to take longer periods of time off,” she said. “So parental leave in order to care for children, they are likely to work part time, they're likely to need more flexible working arrangements…that means they're not able to work those extreme hours.”

What HR teams can do

Lee described how gender inequality in the law profession can affect employers.

“Many women lawyers felt exhausted by the persistent inequalities and some felt forced to leave the jobs they're in for other jobs that they perceived as more hospitable,” Lee said. “And in some cases, some were considering leaving the professional together.”

And having lawyers who leave can impact employers who've invested a lot of time and resources into their workforce, Lee said.

“They really risk diminishing employee morale [and] losing key talent if those inequalities aren't addressed and people consider leaving,” Lee said.

To support women in the legal profession, Lee suggested that organisations consider what a reasonable billing target is to reduce burnout and support those with caring responsibilities.

“There's also potential for organisations to look at other performance measures beyond billing targets. Including things like quality of output and the broader contributions to the workplace like mentoring lawyers [and] looking for and supporting efficiencies within their organisations.”

And to support gender equality not just for lawyers, but more broadly in other sectors, employers could look at supporting flexible working, reviewing existing mechanisms for reporting sexual harassment and supporting gender equal share of care, Lee said.

“That could include encouraging and supporting fathers and non-birthing parents to access parental leave, through employee policies, but also sharing and celebrating stories of those lawyers that are taking the family time off,” she said.

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