"Girlfriends of the Court"

In the Legal Profession, the Gender Card comes up Trumps

In Diversity, Judiciary, Solicitors, women on October 24, 2012 at 8:11 am

The gender card, so we’re told, has been played by the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard.  In the context of contemporary debate about sexism in public life, I’ve had a few interesting conversations lately about issues concerning women.  These conversations have been with educated men with whom I usually enjoy excellent interaction.  I have to say though that their thoughts about sexism and women in the context of the discussions we have had, did surprise me.  Mostly, it seems to me that not just in the public sphere but also more broadly, so many men (and some women) can’t (or won’t) see the issues as so many women experience them.

I have asked myself whether, perhaps, I misunderstand my own experiences.  That the current public debate about sexism has it seems captured the imagination of so many women indicates that I am not alone.  In addition, there is a lot of evidence, including scholarly study, that would back me up.  Why is it then, that the way that women experience sexism is not acknowledged?

Feeling invisible

The first example I offer is that of feeling invisible.  This is notable in my industry of higher education, where the lack of women in senior positions remains an issue for Universities Australia.  In my profession of law, women are likewise under-represented in senior positions despite comprising at least half the annual cohort of graduates.

I feel alien from the sports coverage in the mainstream media, where based on the lack of coverage of women’s sport it seems that women don’t engage in sporting activities at all.  All we seem to see are reports of men’s sporting achievements. (Women’s sport makes up only 9% of sports coverage on television news and current affairs, while men’s sport makes up 81%.)

I feel invisible in so much of the language we use.  In Man Made Language Dale Spender articulates clearly the way in which women are rendered invisible through linguistic devices such as the use of ‘he’ to include ‘she’.  While in academia and indeed in many legal style guides gender-neutral language is the standard, I was surprised to learn of lawyers who continue to use ‘he’ in this way, saying that they do not see the word as implying exclusion.

I accept that there will be many for whom there is indeed no sense of exclusion – because they are men, and are not excluded.  What puzzles me is why there is not a more widespread appreciation of how women and girls feel or might feel – namely, that use of language in this way perpetuates the understanding that this world is for and about men.

Employment on merit?

The second example I offer is the question of women’s employment based on ‘merit’.  I will talk about employment and progression in the legal profession.  I participated in a discussion following the publication of comments by Caroline Counsel, past president of the Law Institute of Victoria, suggesting quotas as a means by which to address gender inequality.  A view was put forcefully that employment must be based on merit alone, the implication being that quotas would result in less qualified people (women) being appointed.

Without entering a debate about whether quotas are the correct policy to deal with gender inequality, I am rather more interested in learning about perceptions of what is a ‘merit-based appointment’.  The implication in my discussions seems to be that either you can do a job, or you cannot.  If you can do it, then you will be appointed regardless of your sex.

I am sure that there are many many women employed in a great variety of circumstances, having been considered on their ‘merits’.  Many women however have not had this experience.  This suggests that there are a few issues with using this standard.

First, just what merits are being measured?  Applicants may have the same achievements on their resume, but ultimately, there may well be other attributes that are deemed attractive in a man, and not in a woman: assertiveness for example.

Secondly, what is the culture of the workplace in terms of its treatment of women who are employed there?  Is the work women do devalued?  Are women criticized for speaking their minds?  Is there support for parental leave and a return to career afterwards? Are women paid the same as men for equivalent work? Are women harassed at work?  Terry Hutchinson and Heather Skousgaard’s 2008 paper confirms the extent of discrimination experienced by women lawyers in the workplace in all these guises.  The New South Wales Law Society’s 2011 project on the advancement of women in the profession indicates that women continue to experience their profession differently from their male colleagues.  Merit does not seem to come into the equation – but being a woman certainly does.

In a similar vein, it seems that women lawyers are not offered the same opportunities as their male colleagues, presenting a further barrier to advancement.  This is a story that is reported annually.  As Caroline Counsel said, change is happening too slowly.

Finally, what is the representation of women in the upper ranks of the legal profession?  And please do not tell me that we now have three women on the High Court of Australia…  While this is fabulous news, and indicates that relevantly qualified women can, of course, successfully reach the highest office, it does not diminish the dearth of senior positions for women elsewhere in the profession.

So what does all this say about merit?  Is it really possible that in spite of representing half or more of law graduates in Australia, that the majority of women lawyers have less merit than their male colleagues?  That they are incapable of doing the same work?

I just find this impossible to believe.

What I find so disappointing though, is the attitude of those who seem not to listen to the voices of women who, because they are women, experience discrimination, harassment and worse.  Perhaps if we spent more time listening to these stories with compassion, we could start to unravel the culture that promotes and rewards sexism – whether intentional or not.

What is your experience as a woman lawyer or law student?

Kate Galloway teaches law at James Cook University. Follow her blog at Curl, and on twitter at @KatGallow

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  1. I was raised as a strong, independent woman. Constantly told at school that we were equal in every way. I felt like I lived in a post-feminist world where the issues of inequality were issues of the past. Starting a career in law changed that. At Uni I started admin assistant at a lawfirm, along with another law student (male). He was taken under the male partners’ wings while I was “one of the girls” (secretaries). Not once was he tasked with doing the kitchen wash-up, doing the coffee run, dicta typing etc. instead he spent his days researching and following the male solicitors around court. I did this once in my 2 years there, with a new female solicitor that one of the male partners thought would “want some company.”

    Another time, at a clerkship interview I had the managing director point out to me that the school I went to was always his favourite when he was a boy “because they wore the shortest skirts.”

    So many other examples and I haven’t even graduated yet. Now I just expect to be battling the Old Boy’s Club for the duration of my career.

  2. Excellent article, and to Meredith hang in there. One of the ways invisibility manifested itself for me was when I would contribute to team meetings, only to have my proposals initially ignored until they were uttered by a bloke as if he had just thought of it at which point everyone would says “What a great idea!”

    Indeed, one of the things I liked about court advocacy work was that it was the one place where you would speak as a woman and no one could steal your words.

  3. apologies for the slack editing of last response

  4. For the most part, I have not had many bad experiences as a woman in the law. I have many wonderful women mentors, managers and colleagues to thank for these positive experiences.

    However, I have unfortunately experienced the reality that merit is not enough. My early career did not progress as quickly as it probably should have, not because I wasn’t competent, hard working or innovative, but because of the sorts of double standards discussed in this blog. I didn’t advance because I didn’t demand it; when I demanded it, the relationship with my employer quickly disintegrated. It seemed that they were happy to take my hard work, but weren’t happy to reward it. This was in stark contrast to the treatment of my male colleagues.

    The Victorian Women Lawyers have run some very practical and hands on seminars about how to successfully promote yourself and get the promotions and pay rises commensurate to your merit. These seminars have been great in walking that fine line in pushing your achievements without being labelled as “aggressive” (and therefore, unfeminine and unsuitable). It doesn’t mean that the system shouldn’t change, but such seminars certainly help women survive the system as it is in the meantime.

  5. […] We observe as an aside, with the greatest respect, that attitudes in the courts themselves have sometimes represented bullying and sexist behaviours.  We have written on this before. (See eg here and here.) […]

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  7. […] In the legal profession, gender comes up trumps! […]

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