The 8th of March 2018 marks the 109th celebration of International Women’s Day, with the campaign’s theme being “#PressforProgress” to encourage women and men alike to keep up the momentum and stay motivated in their fight for gender equality worldwide. We have seen 2017 bring about important developments for women through the campaigns “#MeToo” and “#TimesUp” highlighting the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment, particularly in the workplace. Although these movements have made incredibly important strides in supporting survivors and making abusers accountable, the unfortunate reality of the situation is that we still have a long way to go. Following the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap Report showing that gender parity is still over 200 years away, there has never been a more important time to keep fighting for gender equality and pushing for progress.

International Women’s Day can also give us an opportunity to celebrate the achievements women have made in professional fields. Recent decades have seen Australian women make important progress towards equality through increasing their participation in universities, workplaces, boardrooms and in governments. We have also seen women take on a growing number of leadership positions in these institutions, becoming trailblazers for the generations of women and girls who can now follow in their footsteps.

A lot of these progressive developments have been achieved through important legislation, such as the Sex Discrimination Act of 1984 making sex discrimination and sexual harassment across various parts of public life against the law. This Act intended to not only promote equality between men and women but to also eliminate discrimination on the basis of sex, marital status or pregnancy and eliminate sexual harassment at work. Beyond this, the Act also played a significant role in changing community attitudes and helping advance gender equality socially in Australia.

Women have certainly come a long way- particularly in the field of law which has been historically dominated by men. The first female law student to graduate in Australia was Ada Evans, who graduated from Sydney University in 1902 but unfortunately women were not entitled to practise law in NSW until 1918. Flos Grieg was admitted as a barrister in Victoria in 1905, becoming the first woman to enter the legal profession in Australia.

An important legacy that these trailblazers have left us was to make it more commonplace for women to study law and for women to practise law. Nowadays, women make up two thirds of law graduates, are a majority in legal practitioners aged between 20-50 years and female solicitors in Victoria now outnumber male solicitors. Women are also entering the legal profession at a higher rate than men, with a 34.2 per cent increase in the number of female lawyers since 2011, in comparison to 15.6 per cent for men.

However, although the number of women undertaking law degrees and entering the legal profession has grown and even overtaken men in some areas, women are still sorely underrepresented at the higher end of the profession with only 10% of women in the legal field occupying senior positions. Recent research from the Women Lawyers’ Association of NSW has also found that women made up just 18 per cent of equity partners, despite being equally represented at senior associate level.

There are also significant social barriers that women face in the workplace. The Law Council of Australia’s 2014 National Report found that only 63% of women felt satisfied with their work and opportunities to use their skills compared to 70% of men. Even more alarmingly, half of women reported to experiencing discrimination due to their gender compared to one in ten men. Women are also disadvantaged as they are more often the primary carer for children than men, with 23% of women as primary carers compared to 4% of men despite the proportion of women and men with children being similar. This leads to disruptions in women’s careers that can impact their ability to taken on leadership positions- with 38% of women taking breaks since their admission to the legal field compared to 22% of men. Law firms are often lacking in their policies on maternity leave which provides a significant hurdle for women attempting to balance their role as family carers whilst simultaneously attempting to advance their careers in the legal field.

Due to the significant disadvantages women may face in the legal profession, there have been several measures implemented to address this inequality. The Law Council of Australia is attempting to tackle gender bias with new workshops and has adopted several measures to try and achieve further equality, including an equitable briefing policy as a method of improving the retention of women barristers in the legal profession. Additionally, law firms including Allens, King & Wood Mallesons, Minter Ellison and Clayton Utz have reportedly made commitments to boost the number of briefs given to female barristers.

We’ve come a long way since the historic achievements of Ada Evans and Flos Grieg but the underrepresentation of women in senior legal positions and social barriers faced in the workplace show that we have a long way to go. Justice Susan Kiefel (Australia’s first female High Court chief justice) once described herself being a “lonely tree in a forest of men” in her early experiences at the Queensland bar but later commented that women were now “part of the landscape”.  Let us use this International Women’s Day as an opportunity to reflect on the significant achievements of women in law but also as a reminder that we still have a long way to go before gender equality is achieved. There has never been a better time to keep up the momentum and #PressforProgress to advance the role of women in the legal field.

By Rebekah de Keijzer