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Australian Law and Politics

Glass Ceiling For Women Lawyers


Just 90 years after winning the right to practice law, woman currently make up 68% of all law graduates, which is a remarkable achievement. However, females account for only 16% of partners, and less than 3% of managing partners and/or CEO’s which raises questions of gender equality at the senior management level within Australian law firms.

According to sex discrimination commissioner Elizabeth Broderick, the system of billable hours employed by the majority of law firms in private practice could amount to sexual discrimination if it acts as an impediment to women seeking partnership.

Indeed, one of the traditional selection criteria for achieving partnership in most law firms is a calculation of the amount of ‘billable hours’ each partnership candidate has charged out.

“The question [of sexual discrimination] would depend on the circumstances in any given case. The issue the court would be concerned with is: Is the system employed by the firm (in this case, billable hours) reasonable under the circumstances?” she said.

Senior partnership recruitment consultant Marianna Tuccia of Naiman Clarke is of the view that many women seeking partnership have long been disadvantaged by the system of billable hours.

“One of the criteria for partnership is how much you bill. If you are working part-time you are not going to bill as much, and this has worked to the detriment of women seeking partnership.” she said.

In 1998 the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission found that requiring partners or aspiring partners to work fulltime would inevitably disadvantage women. Therefore to regard this as a ‘reasonable requirement’ would perpetuate and institutionalise indirect discrimination against female practitioners. (Hickie v Hunt & Hunt)

In spite of this, many within the sector are not prepared to blame the system of billable hours for the low proportion of women being appointed to partnership level in Australia. According to Hays senior recruitment consultant Andrew Rees:

“While billable hours form a component of the criteria for appointment as a partner, other criteria are considered.”

He goes further to dismiss the low proportion of females in partnership roles a result of ‘tradition’ rather than discrimination on the grounds of sex.

“Traditionally there were a larger percentage of male partners in law firms. As a result, whilst there remains a disproportionate number of female partners, the number of female partner appointment have increased in recent history. Law firms have acknowledged the disparity, and have acted and continue to act, to alleviate the gap. He said.

One thing remains certain. That is, the path for women seeking partnership is clearly littered with obstacles which are simply not confronted by their male counterparts. Some are attitudinal whilst others systemic. Hence, it appears that choosing the right firm, with a supportive and flexible culture is the first step towards women achieving partnership and beyond. Equally importantly is the development of technical skills, hard work, and passion for the law. Finally, it would take a brave soul indeed to resist the collective rethink of the system of billable hours currently being advocated by Commissioner Broderick.

About Craig Hill

Teacher and Writer. Writing has been cited in New York Times, BBC, Fox News, Aljazeera, Philippines Star, South China Morning Post, National Interest, news.com.au, Wikipedia and others.

Discussion

One thought on “Glass Ceiling For Women Lawyers

  1. Erm. The last paragraph seems to suggest (not purposefully, I assume! 🙂 ) that female lawyers HAVEN’t developed the technical skills, are NOT hard-working and DON’t have a passion for law (since you mention these points as equally important as choosing the right firm – which is something that most of these women obviously haven’t done yet)…

    Sorry, just like to stir and catch people out (though I’ve just read it to my friend asking if I’m splitting some hairs and she felt the same!) 🙂

    Seriously, though. While I can see that the glass ceiling exists, some of the points in this article seem to me to be very badly phrased. The one about the the billing hour system: “One of the criteria for partnership is how much you bill. If you are working part-time you are not going to bill as much, and this has worked to the detriment of women seeking partnership.” Would anyone expect a company to select as a partner someone who works part-time? The problem (in this sentence, at least) is not the billing system: it’s the fact that women are often forced to work less, because in our society the pressure is still on them to take care of the family. If a child falls ill, most of the time people will expect the mother to take a day off, not the father – and this is what gives them less time for work, thus stopping them from getting promotions. The ultimate problem, therefore, is this: how to give women more time to work (–> developing infrastructure like kindergartens etc? Involving the fathers more in family duties? At the very least emphasising that women are not working less because they’re lazy, but because they have more extra-work obligations). If you can prove that a woman who works part-time manages to do the same amount of work as a man working full-time, then by all means: the billing system is to be blamed and it has to be changed. But the quoted sentence is such a short summary of the whole problem that it seems to suggest that women should be getting partnerships DESPITE the fact they work less than men!

    (Again let me stress: I’m commenting of the phrasing, not the contents – I’m sure everything I’ve written is obvious to all the readers! 🙂 )

    Posted by oolung | February 23, 2012, 23:22

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