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Published: 08 March 2019
Author: Madlaina Meister

Women in law – the past, present and future 

On March 8 each year we celebrate International Women's Day and reflect on progress made and work still to be done to achieve gender equality.

The timing of a new movie in cinemas now, 'On the Basis of Sex', is surely no coincidence either. The movie is a fictional account of a sex discrimination case US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG as she is affectionately known) and her late husband argued together in the 1970s, and shines a light on some of the gender-specific obstacles and prejudices faced in her career.

In this blog, I want to look at something closer to home, the history of women in the legal profession in Victoria. My contemporaries and I are familiar with seeing many fellow female lawyers, and the latest statistical data from the Victorian Legal Services Board shows that as at 1 January 2019, women admitted to practise outnumbered their male counterparts. This has however been a long and hard fought for process.

History of women in the legal profession

Women were barred from entering the legal profession in Victoria until 1903. That year, after a campaign spearheaded by Grata Flos Matilda Greig, Ruth Campbell and J Barton, the Parliament of Victoria passed the Legal Profession Practice Act 1903 (Vic), allowing the admission of women to the profession.

It took a further two years to 1905 until Ms Greig herself was admitted to practise as the first female lawyer in Victoria. In the 20 years that followed her admission, only 34 other women were admitted to practise. It took another 60 years until 1997 for admissions of women to exceed those of men and this trend continues today.

Joan Rosanove became the first woman admitted as a barrister in 1919 and also became the first female QC in Victoria in 1965.

The courts, however, remained largely male-dominated. The first woman appointed to the Supreme Court of Victoria was Rosemary Balmford in 1996 and Marilyn Warren became the first woman appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Victoria.

Women practising law in Victoria today

A total of 22,508 practising lawyers were registered in Victoria on 1 January 2019, of which just over half or 11,398 are women. In the 20-49 age group, female lawyers outnumber their male counterparts and this gap is widening. However, in the over 50s age group, women are markedly under-represented.

However, a breakdown of the numbers into solicitors and barristers shows that women only make up about one-third of all barristers and these numbers fall even further once we look at senior barristers.

The future for women in law

Various papers published over the last few years also show that while female representation in the legal profession is on the rise, there is still a long way to go when it comes to women in senior positions and female partners.

One could argue this will automatically change as the increasing numbers of young women in the profession rise through the ranks, but current figures do not back this up as more women than men also leave the profession.

This does not only have an impact on statistics, but has real-life economic consequences, as firms lose their investment in the education and experience of the women leaving the profession.

The reasons for women leaving the profession are many. In 2015 Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner, Kate Jenkins, herself a lawyer, said this about her experience:
“Basically through social conditioning and unconscious bias, we associate men with work and leadership and women with family and nurturing.”

She pointed out that progression through the ranks of the legal profession is not a strict process and it can be hard for firms to change their processes to accommodate women. One tool she believes is effective in retaining women is to adopt flexible work practices. As gender roles and expectations change, flexible work practices will not only benefit women but also men.

This was reinforced by the 2015 Victorian Women Lawyers Convenor, Kirsten Adams, who said:
“Firms must actively support flexible work practices for women and men, in order to bring about transformational change in the culture of legal workplaces…The good news is that forward-thinking firms are doing all these things and more.”

Being the change at leadership level

Within our firm of Ryan Carlisle Thomas and Stringer Clark, we are among the leaders when it comes to addressing gender balance in the workplace and are proud to be one of the first plaintiff law firms to have achieved this balance at partnership level.

Achieving and maintaining gender balance is an ongoing process and cultural change requires constant work and vigilance. Firms focusing on addressing and facilitating this cultural change will create a better workplace not just for women, but also for men and will hopefully spearhead these changes in the broader legal profession.

Categories: Women, Careers