Changing the rules: the experiences of female lawyers in Victoria

Law Australia Victoria

"Women are an intrinsic part of the legal profession in Australia. They make up 46 per cent of lawyers practicing in Australia today. In 1960, just 11 percent of law graduates were women, but since the 1990s the majority of Australian law graduates have been women."

The reasons why women are attracted to the profession are varied. Some see it as an instrument for social change; others as an opening to a high-paying career with associated power and independence while some may value the intellectual rigour that the law provides.

For a few, a law degree could be the launching pad to a political career. Presently the two most powerful posts in Australian politics are held by women – Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Governor- General Quentin Bryce – both with law degrees. Here in Victoria, Marilyn Warren is the first female Chief Justice.

Regardless of the reason for their attraction to the law, there is no doubt that women are graduating and participating in the legal profession at a high rate, however their career trajectories remain quite different to that for men. We know for example that:

  • while more than half of all law graduates are female, a recent survey revealed that only 21 per cent of partners in Australian law firms are women
  • women are more likely than men to remain in roles where only an employee-practising certificate is required, while men were more likely to move to roles where a principal practising certificate is required
  • women lawyers earn less than their male counterparts
  • attrition rates remain a concern for both male and female lawyers, however more women than men leave the law within five years
  • discrimination and harassment issues are reported as being present.

As the profession becomes more diverse, it could be assumed that women will eventually share the same career pathways and opportunities as men. However, even with more than 30 years of equal opportunity legislation, it appears that the ‘pipeline’ of increasing numbers of women in the law has not resulted in equality in the profession.

This research has sought to understand and report on the experiences of women in the legal profession – focusing on sexual harassment, discrimination and accommodation of parent and carer responsibilities. The Commission wanted to know how common these problems were, and how they impacted on the women who experienced them. We also wanted to know what positive actions were being taken by legal practices and by the profession as a whole to improve equality for women in the law.

We collected quantitative and qualitative data through an online survey. More than 400 women lawyers participated in the survey. We supplemented this data with interviews with exemplars from the profession and conducted a focus group with women who had left the legal profession.

There is no doubt that in recent years a number of legal firms have worked hard to address some of the factors that have a disproportionate impact on women. The Commission wants to promote and build on this leading practice and this report includes examples of firms that have implemented a variety of positive measures.

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