International Women’s Day

The 8th of March 2019 marks the 110th celebration of International Women’s Day, with this years theme being #BalanceforBetter – encouraging us all to strive for a gender-balanced world in the classroom, in the workplace, in the media, in sport and everywhere in between!

International Women’s Day gives 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. This International Women’s Day, we spoke to some inspiring women and asked what it means for them to be a female in the legal field.

Michelle Berry

IMMEDIATE PAST PRESIDENT OF VICTORIAN WOMEN LAWYERS |
LAWYER AT HALL & WILCox

Michelle Berry is the Immediate Past President of Victorian Women Lawyers (VWL) and a commercial litigation lawyer at Hall & Wilcox. Michelle has been an active participant of VWL since 2015. In 2016, she was elected as Co-Chair of the VWL Networking Committee and in 2017, she was elected as Vice President.

What initially motivated you to pursue a career in Law?

I have always had a strong sense of social justice. I wanted to study law to empower myself and others to be able to use the law as a means of protecting and enforcing rights.

As a female in the corporate world, what do you believe has been your great challenge?

Whilst it is not a challenge that I have personally faced in my career, I think that one of the most difficult challenges is women progressing through their career whilst also balancing major caring responsibilities. We have so many women coming out of law school and into grad jobs. The issue is that we can’t get them to the top. I think that flexible work arrangements will play a big role in addressing this, as well as broader cultural changes in workplaces.

What female role-model did you most admire growing up?

I have so many amazing female role models now. Former Chief Justice Marilyn Warren AC (VWL’s Patron in Chief), Professor Gillian Triggs, The Hon. Linda Dessau AC, Fiona McLeod SC to name a few! I also have some fantastic role models in my current workplace and through Victorian Women Lawyers (including past presidents who have provided mentorship and support along the way).

Do you believe there is any current legislation or precedent that hinders gender equality in Australian society?

I think that serious consideration needs to be given in relation to legislating to provide formal protection against sexual harassment in the workplace. The Fair Work Act seems like an appropriate forum – the legislation could be modelled upon the existing bullying legislation. Cultural change needs to accompany any legislative change to make an impact.

Where do you see the future for women in the legal sector?

At the top! I see more women moving up through the ranks and to the top. I also see greater diversity more generally, including by way of cultural background, age, disability – and with that, greater diversity of thought and leadership. I think that flexible working arrangements will be a bit part of assisting women reach the top.

Corinna Cook

Senior Associate at Turks Legal

Corinna completed her practical legal training at the Aboriginal Legal Service and Public Interest Advocacy Centre before securing a graduate lawyer role at TurksLegal in 2011. Corrina credits TurksLegal for nurturing her legal career, and was promoted to Senior Associate in 2015. She is now a part time lawyer and a mother.

What female role-model did you most admire growing up?

As cliché as it is, my role model is my grandma. My grandma immigrated to Australia from Greece in the 1950s. While looking after two children under two, my grandpa was involved in a motor bike accident. With no welfare, no income, no English skills and children completely dependent on her, she supported her family emotionally and financially.

I am devastated that my grandma didn’t grow up in the world I live in, with the same education and career opportunities. Her, and other women like her, make me so grateful that I am able to pursue a career, especially while being the primary carer of my son.

As a female in the corporate world, what do you believe has been your great challenge?

It is challenging being a woman in a corporate world, particularly in the legal industry were traditionally ‘masculine’ traits are synonymous with success. Breaking down those archaic constructs is, in my view, the greatest challenge that women face in the legal industry.

A female lawyer usually will need to prove that she is strong, whereas strength is usually perceived as given for male lawyers. There is also a burden on women to prove that being successful in the current legal climate, where there is a focus on early and alternative dispute resolution, requires less adversarial skills, which were traditionally skills (whether that is right or wrong) seen to be held exclusively by men.

Where do you see the future for women in the legal sector?

The future for women in the legal sector is bright. With every generational change, there are more women in leadership positions at firms, including TurksLegal. This makes it an exciting time to be a woman in law and shows that equity partner, if that is your goal, is achievable.

In my experience, the biggest and most important changes in the legal industry are around what it means to a working mum. I am a woman who has had the joy and heartbreak of being pregnant and having a miscarriage while at work. In the past women’s health issues were dismissed or belittled but I was cared for and supported in the workplace. Also, we are seeing the introduction of better paid paternity leave and more flexible work arrangements. In my view, these just some of the examples indicative of how far women, especially working mums, have come. It is no doubt challenging, but women really can have it all!

Natasha Stojanovich

SPECIAL COUNSEL at LANDER & ROGERS LAWYERS

Natasha Stojanovich is a Special Counsel at Lander & Rogers. Natasha specialises in insurance and construction law, which are traditionally very male dominated fields of practice. She is an experienced litigator, with particular expertise in defending claims against construction professionals. She has acted for numerous architects, engineers, and building surveyors. She is currently acting in numerous flammable cladding-related disputes, and has particular expertise in this area and related liabilities.

Natasha is Vice President of the Professional Indemnity Group and a member of the Australian and New Zealand Institute of Insurance and Finance Journal Advisory Committee. Natasha is also a proud mother of a five-year-old daughter.

What initially motivated you to pursue a career in Law?

When I started my law degree, I had no real interest in actually practising as a lawyer. However, that soon changed once I started to get some experience working in law firms and after undertaking a Reprieve Internship in 2002, where I worked on death penalty defence cases in Louisiana, USA. I quickly developed a real passion for the practice of law and applying problem-solving skills to ‘real world’ issues in order to help clients with their legal needs. I’ve never looked back!

As a female in the corporate world, what do you believe has been your great challenge?

There have been many challenges along the way in my legal career, and naming the greatest is in itself a challenge! However, if I were to pick one, it would be unconscious bias. In the legal professional, many of the senior leaders are men. Whilst many of them are well-intentioned and intellectually supportive of women and women’s progression and advancement in the workforce, they can exhibit unconscious bias. As I’ve become more experienced and more senior, I have felt more comfortable to call out examples of unconscious bias, which I believe is an important part of driving behavioural change. I’ve also been very pleased to see my employers adopt formal training programs to address unconscious bias.

What female role-model did you most admire growing up?

My mother was a real trail-blazer working in the field of medicine. Despite hitting many roadblocks in her career, she always remained passionate and persistent in her professional calling, which was a real source of inspiration to me.

I had no lawyers in my family (male or female), so I have always sought female role-models in law, who were succeeding despite the challenges and discrimination that they faced along the way. I loved reading biographies about the trail-blazing female silks and judges, in Australia and further afield (with biographies of Joan Rosanove QC and Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsburg being favourites).

Do you believe there is any current legislation or precedent that hinders gender equality in Australian society?

I think more support and encouragement should be given to men taking parental leave and embracing part-time work. Raising children is hard to combine with a career, but can certainly be done with the right support around you. I have been lucky to have a very supportive partner who has taken a career break to care for our daughter. Unfortunately, examples of men embracing carer roles are not as common as they should be.

Where do you see the future for women in the legal sector?

The future for women in the legal sector is bright. However, women still face a lot of challenges including systemic problems and, at times, discrimination on the basis of their gender. It therefore remains very important to recognise, celebrate, and champion the achievements of women in the law, as well as calling out discrimination where we see it.

Gemma McGreal

Lawyer at Turks Legal

Gemma is a Journalism and Laws graduate from the University of Technology Sydney, now a budding junior Lawyer. After working for a number of media outlets and law firms, she now works in the area of Work Injury Damage with TurksLegal, an area focused in negligence.

Gemma is also focused in giving back to her community, and has volunteered with the Jumbunna House of Learning throughout her studies, an Indigenous legal justice centre which provides legal assistance to the Indigenous community in the areas of criminal law and environmental law.

She now assists ANTaR (a national network of organisations working in support of Justice, Rights and Respect for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia) with research projects to provide information papers to Indigenous communities on issues relevant to them.

What initially motivated you to pursue a career in Law?

When I first applied to university, I was unsure of what career path I was interested in, and chose a Bachelor of Architecture for the fun of it, and also because I enjoyed mathematics. After a year and a half of study I realised this design focused degree was not for me, and after self-reflection I decided to undertake a career in Journalism, to one day become a musical journalist, combining my passions of writing and music. I only studied a law degree to have a competitive edge in Journalism. However, upon studying this degree, by my second year I fell in love with the law and wanted nothing else then to become a lawyer.

As a female in the corporate world, what do you believe has been your great challenge?

Luckily for me, I have now found a work environment which is diverse, promotes equality and is abundant with driven and inspiring women. My previous work has involved a high level of misogyny, and I had found myself in a constant state of being ‘mansplained’ to, which sadly is an everyday occurrence for most women in the corporate world. As a young female law student desperate for work experience, it can be very difficult to find a workplace where women are considered equal, or free from sexual harassment. I have suffered the indignity of working with older male lawyers who believed it was acceptable to treat women in a manner well below what they deserve for which I never will again.

As society changes, workplaces are becoming a much more female friendly environment, where women can be proud to spend their time, energy and intellect, and I am very happy to have found one.

What female role-model did you most admire growing up?

The most inspiring woman who I aspired to be growing up, and continue to aspire to be now, is my older sister, Siobhan McGreal. She is a brilliant, empathetic and selfless individual, who not only always encouraged me in all my endeavours, but taught me to be an independent, uncompromising woman, leading me in the ways of social justice issues and self-awareness. She is also a lawyer, focused in the area of family law, and was the first in my entire family to attend university. If, throughout my future, I am half of the woman that she is, I would find myself to be incredibly lucky.

Where do you see the future for women in the legal sector?

I see a much more diverse hierarchy in the legal sector, and if our university admissions into law degrees are anything to go by, there will be many more women in senior solicitor, counsel, senior counsel and judges’ roles in the years to come.

Presently, junior roles in law firms are now dominated by women, and hopefully in the future, this will be reflected in more senior positions.

Jana Seroukas

Lawyer at Turks Legal

Jana graduated from Macquarie University with a Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Laws honours majoring in Criminology. She has had experience in customer service, volunteering for social justice groups and in the legal sector. She began at TurksLegal in August 2018 as a part of the Graduate Rotation Program. Jana has been a part of both the General Insurance and Employers Liability teams and has learned a wide range of skills and fostered great comradery. She has recently settled as a first year lawyer in the General Insurance team.

What initially motivated you to pursue a career in Law?

I can pinpoint the moment I knew I wanted to study law back to a Year 10 Commerce class. Our class began studying Legal Studies and I was instantly interested as we started looking at the basis outline of how the Legal system functions. I remember my teacher telling me that pursuing a career in Law was difficult as it was very selective… so I knew I had to prove that I could do it. Progressing onto university I found that I was constantly stimulated and challenged. Although it can be tough I know that the skills I have learned and will learn are invaluable.

As a female in the corporate world, what do you believe has been your great challenge?

I don’t think there is a great challenge. I believe there are socially entrenched obstacles which women face throughout their day to day working environment. An example that I can give is that most women I know have “a story”, for example a comment that has been made or a way they have been treated differently on the basis of gender. The corporate world, however, is only symptomatic of the perceptions and values we hold in our community. Slowly these entrenched social stereotypes and ideas regarding gender are changing as we are moving towards a more accepting and equal society.

I can see this change and feel lucky enough to have worked in many workplaces, like TurksLegal, which celebrate and support their female employees. I am surrounded every day by positive female and male colleagues who build each other up and provide opportunities for personal and professional growth.

What female role-model did you most admire growing up?

I grew up in a very female orientated environment. My family is predominately women, I went to an all-girls high school, and most of my friends are women. I don’t think I’m able to pinpoint a single person as a role-model, rather I believe growing up surrounding by strong, successful and supportive women has empowered me to have belief in myself and know it was normal to pursue any career path I wanted.

(I did do a project on Amelia Earhart when I was in Year 5 though and was pretty inspired by her.)

Where do you see the future for women in the legal sector?

I see the future for women in the legal sector as the future for people in the legal sector. We are already seeing more women enter the legal sector than ever before. If the statistics on female graduates from law degrees at university are anything to go by there should be systemic change on a higher level within the legal sector in years to come. I look at all the inspiring women I currently work with at TurksLegal and know that the future is bright.

Erin Ritchie

Final Year Law Student | Law Student of the year 2018
| Australian law students association President 2018

Erin Ritchie is a Bachelor of Law/Bachelor of Arts (International Relations & Media Studies) student in her final year at Deakin University Burwood Campus. Erin has a diverse range of extra circular involvements including a semester exchange at the University of Leicester, President of the DLSS in 2017 and member of the 2018 Deakin Vis Moot Team. In 2018 she was awarded Law Student of the Year Award at the Law Institute of Victoria’s Legal Awards. Currently, Erin is serving as President of the Australia Law Students’ Association.

What initially motivated you to pursue a career in Law?

I am fascinated by how the law interacts with almost everything we do in daily life. A simple task like buying food from a supermarket is surrounded by legal interactions including contract law, consumer law, competition regulations, tax or workplace law – the list is endless!

I am also intrigued by how the law is used to resolve the conflict between humans – whether it be family law, a criminal law matter, intellectual property dispute or commercial law. It’s not realistic to live in a society that’s void of these interactions; the law needs to provide equality and justice no matter what sector of the legal profession is involved. The law must reflect the rights and interests of the people it seeks to govern and provide an appropriate expectation of behaviour within the community.

As I would also be remiss of me not to mention that growing up in the ’00, Legally Blonde and Boston Legal were both often watched on repeat…

As a female student about to enter a typically male-dominated field, what has been your greatest challenge?

I have been very lucky not to feel that my gender has held me back as a law student. Anytime I have seen a situation where lack of gender diversity has been an issue; it has been an opportunity to assess the drivers of the issue and challenge myself or those around me to change the culture. An example was my election as the first female President of the DLSS in over nine years. When you look at the fact we have had proportionally more female law students at Deakin for the best part of the last decade, but our presidents haven’t reflected this – it is something that clearly needed challenging.

Regardless of gender, in the background of this discussion it is important to remember that everyone has a different personality type, communication types, working style and strengths or weaknesses. Be respectful of differences and see as it an opportunity to diversify your outlook and challenge your perspective.

What female role-model did you most admire growing up?

Growing up I was lucky to be surrounded by powerful female role model in my family through my Sister, Mum and Nan who have provided me with ongoing support and inspiration. In Australia, we are fortunate in Australia to have so many female role-models to look up to, Former Chief Justice Marilyn Warren AC, Julia Gillard AC, Dame Quentin Bryce just to name a few!

If you are looking for some female ‘role-model’ inspiration some of my recent favourites include:

  • Book: ‘Becoming’ by Michelle Obama
  • ‘Tongue in Cheek’ book: ‘How to Be Successful Without Hurting Men’s Feelings: Non-threatening Leadership Strategies for Women’ by Sarah Cooper
  • Playlists: ‘Femme Fatale’ and ‘The Bold Type’ on Spotify
  • Movie: ‘On the Basis of Sex’ a biographical legal drama film based on the life Ruth Bader Ginsburg (it is in cinema’s now and perfect for a movie night this long weekend, invite everyone, it is not a ‘chick-flick’!)
  • Podcast: Fierce Girls by ABC, stories of Fierce Australia Women told by other extraordinary Australian women

Where do you see the future for women in the legal sector?

The future is wherever we want it to be! The journey to gender balance, equal pay, paid parental leave and promoting women into senior leadership is certainly not without hurdles. The women who have come before us and currently in the workforce are doing their part to make it easier for the next generation.

As young female lawyers, we can assist by aspiring to be the best we can be. We can do our part by proactively seeking out opportunities, support other women, be authentic and true to our values. If we do this, with a good worth ethic and gumption, I believe the future can be whatever we make it.