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Women and the Law: Is there Real Equality?

By Angela Sdrinis - posted Friday, 24 June 2011

Fortunately for me, I was a product of the Whitlam years when feminism, multiculturalism and free education became a part of Australia's social fabric. I was a woman of Greek background, with working class migrant parents, and in previous years a University education would have been denied to me.

Life as a University student in the late 70's was a buzz and I really thought the world was my oyster when I got articles with Ryan Carlisle Thomas, one of Victoria's leading labour law firms. Some 30 years later I am still at Ryan Carlisle Thomas. I have been a partner since 1992 and two children later, I am able to reflect on how life has changed for women in the law.

The recent mini series on Ita Buttrose and the Cleo magazine brought back many memories of what it was like to be a woman in the professions all those years ago. Sleazy middle aged barristers thought that young female articled clerks were easy game and it was commonplace to be cornered in a court corridor by Counsel who thought that they were God's gift to women.


Women barristers were a rarity. I have a vivid memory of one very flamboyant female barrister who turned up to court one morning still wearing an outfit from a night on the town barely disguised by her wig and gown.

Female judges were even rarer and I honestly cannot remember appearing before one female Judge. There were no female partners in my firm or indeed in any other firm with which I was familiar.

Of course the reality now is very different with many female barristers, judges and partners in law firms, myself included. And yet even though women in the workforce have come so far, any close analysis shows how far we still have to go. Even if the statistics didn't show that women still face more barriers in work than men, anecdotally we can see that sexism is alive and well in the workplace.

The recent sexual harassment claim against David Jones is a case in point. What I think was most interesting about this case is the way it captured the public imagination. After all there is nothing so unusual about the allegations made against Mark McInnes (the former CEO of David Jones). Moreover, in the 80's no one would have batted an eyelid at such conduct (particularly not the barristers I referred to above) and I doubt whether the allegations would have ever found their way into court. Women back then just liked it or lumped it.

No doubt the level of damages sought ($37 million) contributed to the media frenzy. There is also little doubt that the fact that the complainant was a young attractive woman helped drive the publicity, and of course the media love any story that involves sex, power and money.

Despite the blaze of publicity, Kirsty Frazer Kirk reputedly settled for $850,000.00, much less than the $37,000,000.00 she was seeking. Even though the reputed settlement sum is still a great deal of money and anecdotally one of the highest settlements we have seen in this type of claim, it would be interesting to ask Ms Frazer Kirk in twelve months time if she thinks it was all worth it.


So whilst on the one hand it is disappointing that conduct such as that complained of might still exist in the workplace, one would hope that young women are less prepared to put up with it.

So how far have women come in the workplace and is equal pay for equal work any closer to becoming more a reality than it was in 1969 when women were granted the right to equal pay for equal work.

2010 ABS statistics The statistics also show that over the last four years the gender pay gap is increasing and if current earnings patterns continue, the average 25 year old male will earn $2.4 million over the next 40 years where the average 25 year old female will earn only $1.5 million. This is still a huge gap for women to be facing in the 21st millennium.

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About the Author

Angela Sdrinis is a Partner at Ryan Carlisle Thomas

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Angela Sdrinis

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

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