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Victims of neo-liberalism: Why so few women in Australian law firms reach the top and stay there

By Roy Williams - posted Thursday, 23 June 2011

Women are grossly under-represented at the higher levels of the Australian legal profession. Nationwide, barely one-fifth of the partners in commercial law firms are women. A much tinier fraction are senior partners, SCs or judges. Yet young women account for over 60 per cent of the country's law graduates, and, on average, the annual "intake" of first-year lawyers in Australian firms is at least 50 per cent female.

That means a lot of talent and experience is going to waste.

The situation has not improved since the mid-1980s. In fact, while statistically similar, it is much worse today. A generation ago it was still possible to argue that big change had just begun, and that time should do the rest. That comforting line is no longer tenable.


Of course, the problem is not confined to the law, still less to Australia. To a greater or lesser extent, the same under-representation of women exists across the West and in most other professions, such as stockbroking and accountancy. So too, in big business, especially the banking sector.

But the focus of this article will be the law – in particular, mid to large-sized private firms of solicitors – in respect of which a few special factors are at play.

Let's begin by eliminating some red herrings.

For a start, overt sexual discrimination can be ruled out as a significant factor in female under-representation. During my twenty years in the profession in Sydney, I saw almost no evidence of it. In any case, such behaviour is already illegal.

Nor, to any significant extent, am I inclined to blame the problem on more subtle forms of deliberate bias in favour of men.

True, there remain a few male partners in most Australian law firms who are social reactionaries and/or misogynists. Such men point to the traditional lack of women in partner ranks as a reason to continue to exclude them, and/or to women's alleged lack of "legal savvy" or "hard-nosed negotiating skills".


But the vast majority of today's young and middle-aged male lawyers are not of that mindset. They like and respect their female colleagues and treat them as equals. More importantly, the influence of old-style Neanderthals – to the extent they remain in positions of seniority – is waning, and has been for a long time.

In Australian law firms today, there is general agreement that the under-representation of women at senior levels is a huge problem. If nothing else, it is publicly embarrassing. Most male partners would be pleased if the numerical imbalance could be corrected – though not at any cost.

What, then, is the solution?

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About the Author

Roy Williams won the Sydney University Medal in law in 1986. He practised as a litigation solicitor in Sydney for 20 years, before becoming a full-time writer. He is the author of God, Actually, an award-winning and best-selling defence of Christianity published in Australasia by ABC Books and in Britain and North America by Monarch Books.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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