International Women's Day is more than a day — there are 101 reasons to celebrate
Celebrating women in law
‘Women in law’ as a term has come a long way, while early trailblazers lit the path, it is the modern workforce that has kept the flame burning and developing – pioneering innovations and bringing fresh perspective to a once male-dominated industry.
In fact, according to URBIS’ 2018 – National Profile of Solicitors, in 2016 the profession had, for the first time a balance of genders (50% female and 50% male) and 2018 saw a shift to 52% for the former, positioning males at 48%.
“As talented and strong individuals we impact, disrupt, challenge and improve the law in equal standing with our male colleagues, the clear and unequivocal empowerment from our employers to be changemakers in the face of the antiquated views of the old-industry, has seen significant legal advancements across a global scale” – Kristan Conlon shared.
2018 celebrated the 100-year milestone of women practicing law across the majority of Australian states, in response McCullough Robertson created the Year 101 project – highlighting 101 women in the legal profession. Three years on we have seen 61 incredible legal professionals profiled, with many more to come.
Nominations are open and in the spirit of today, if you have a female industry colleague who has impacted your career, please submit their details here. We will review and continue sharing additional inspirational stories with you.
Wherever you are celebrating today, from all of us at McCullough Robertson Lawyers, best wishes for International Women’s Day.
Whichever variation of the gender pay gap you’ve heard of – industry gaps, role gaps, or the worrying national averages – and whichever statistic you’ve been quoted, there’s no escaping that many women are being paid less than their male counterparts.
While it has been a topic of discussion for a long time, the legal profession’s gender pay gap is narrowing at a snail’s pace, and there appears to be a reluctance to ‘own’ the problem and be part of the solution.
Have we created an ‘illusion of progression’?
McCullough Robertson Managing Partner Kristen Podagiel reflected on a recent managing partners’ lunch where she raised the topic of the gender pay gap.
“I put forward a discussion point around the gender pay gap that still exists within the legal industry, mentioned some of the sticky issues we’re dealing with, and some of the initiatives we’re trialling,” Ms Podagiel said.
“Of the 20 firms represented at that lunch, 17 said they did not have a gender pay gap problem.
“We know from industry statistics that most likely every one of the firms in that room has a pay gap issue. Now they either don’t understand the data or they’re intentionally sticking their heads in the sand,” she said.
Sometimes when we discuss an issue over an extended period, regardless of the topic’s severity or importance, some impact can be lost. While some become immune to the detail, others fall victim to the ‘illusion of progression’ – the feeling that we’ve been talking about something for so long that we must have made some headway by now.
The current state of play
The Australian Government’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) has been collecting data on gender equality factors for over five years, and the findings are still alarming. The latest data from WGEA identifies that the legal services sector has an average gender pay gap of 26.2 per cent, and while this has narrowed from 35.6 per cent in 2014, there is still a long way to go to reach pay parity.
While these figures are industry averages and reflect, to some extent, the trend of women occupying a larger proportion of junior and administrative roles in professional services, there still remains a discrepancy when looking at role-specific data. In the legal profession, male Senior Managers are paid on average 9.1 per cent more than female Senior Managers, and the gap widens for Executive and General Managers – with men earning on average 15.1 per cent more than their female counterparts.
Taking a targeted approach
While the gender pay gap is influenced by an interrelated web of work, family and societal factors, there remains a significant role for organisations to play in ensuring their structures, processes and policies address the factors which influence the gender pay gap.
McCullough Robertson HR Director Louise Ferris noted the targeted approach her organisation is taking to reduce pay inequality.
“While we as an organisation cannot address all the factors influencing the gender pay gap, WGEA has told us that there are three ‘peak points’ during a person’s career where the gender pay gap may be accelerated: at times of recruitment, during salary reviews and after periods of parental leave,” Ms Ferris said.
“So, we have decided to take a strategic approach and focus our efforts on these three areas.
“We have made the decision to contribute additional superannuation to people returning to work after parental leave, introduce twice-yearly systemised salary and bonus reviews, and what I’m really proud of is that we have designed and introduced a new recruiting practice called ‘black boxing’.
“While many organisations are trialling recruitment practices like the use of ‘blind CVs’ and creating more gender-neutral role descriptions, we have been trialling a process called ‘black boxing’ where we assess salary expectation information separately from the applicants themselves.
“When we receive applications, one decision maker (or group of decision makers) reviews the salary expectation information in isolation and recommends a standard salary bracket for the role. Another decision maker (or group of decision makers) then conducts the interviews and recommends the most suitable person against the role description.
“Keeping the salary discussion separate from the applicant suitability discussion aims to reduce biases, correct previously embedded pay inequalities and remove the strength of an individual’s salary negotiation skills from the equation. The focus is simply on getting the best person for the role,” Ms Ferris said.
Almost a year on from implementing the ‘black boxing’ process, Ms Ferris noted the effects are starting to be seen across the organisation.
“We’re beginning to notice fewer salary corrections at bi-annual reviews, as unequal salaries are being corrected at the point of recruitment. It has also been a good education exercise for our lawyers and other staff who have been involved in the hiring process as we continue to better understand how structural organisational changes can improve diversity,” Ms Ferris said.
“While we don’t expect any process to be perfect, to work for every organisation, or to solve the gender pay gap overnight, it’s only through firms taking ownership of the issue and showing a willingness to take a different approach, that we can maintain momentum for the gender pay gap movement, keep discussion fresh and continue to champion diversity in our workplaces.”
The myth of the workplace ‘sisterhood’ and why it may do more harm than good
For many women working in traditionally male-dominated industries, the ‘sisterhood’ represents an unbreakable bond between female colleagues, sharing in challenges and celebrating each other’s successes. But to effectively progress the representation and status of women in the legal profession, what value is there in alienating the men in the room?
There is little point in sidelining men while trying to improve the status of women, as both genders are responsible for, and capable of, addressing the core issues that hinder the progression of women.
An outdated mode
Once characterised by women-only seminars, workshops and programs, the equality agenda has shifted in recent times, with many questioning the effectiveness of a female-only driven approach. While there will always be a place for ‘girl power’, relying solely on women championing women has clear limitations, and these activities mirror much of the exclusionary behaviour that has hindered diversity in the first place.
The Honourable Justice Sarah Derrington, Federal Court judge and President of the Australian Law Reform Commission, recently spoke on the outdated mode of the ‘sisterhood’.
“It is really important that we (women) have some time on our own to share the issues that we may not want to discuss with male colleagues,” Justice Derrington said.
“But I think we’ve got to get rid of this myth of the sisterhood. There’s no reason why all men have to be best friends and there’s no reason why all women have to be best friends. Once you are in a role or position, in whichever type of environment it is, we’re all in it together.”
Leadership without the gender-lens
As with progressing any agenda, buy in from senior leaders is key – and this is where the ‘sisterhood’ model comes up short. While the proportion of male to female solicitors is roughly even, only 28.5% of partners in Australian law firms are women.
Justice Derrington noted the importance of leaders taking an active role in supporting the women in their organisations, and but also the benefit of extending this support to men.
“I like to treat the women who are in my sphere of influence as I would my daughters… if I have had any sort of responsibility for another woman – whether they were my students, employees or colleagues – I’d like to think that I have given them the same amount of attention that I would give to my daughters,” Justice Derrington said.
“Similarly though, I want young men to have the same opportunities and attention that I would give to my son, and I don’t want my son excluded from the opportunities that he would otherwise have had available to him, simply because we’ve now decided that somehow the men have had it much easier than the women.
“It’s important we remember that we can do a lot of damage to the mental health of our sons by some of these conversations.”
A recent study by the Australian Men’s Health Forum found that nearly half of all male respondents believed gender equality strategies in the workplace did not take them into account and that they felt excluded from measures to improve gender equality. This can only disincentivize the men in our workplaces from taking an active approach in supporting both the men and women around them.
Celebrating women – a simple, but important mechanism
At our recent event Year 101: Women in law – the next 100 years, McCullough Robertson Managing Partner Kristen Podagiel was asked “What is one thing you would ask of men to help progress the status of women in the legal profession over the next 100 years?”. Ms Podagiel responded, “I’d ask men to celebrate loudly the wonderful females around them”.
“I know that the males in my organisation have a lot of respect for the females around them, so celebrate their successes. Don’t let these things go unsaid – tell women when they’re excelling at something, when they’re going above and beyond and when they’re performing well,” Ms Podagiel said.
While seemingly simple, the practice of celebrating women addresses a number of social and cultural factors working against the success of women in professional settings.
By virtue of cultural norms and inherited prejudices, women more so than men, are likely to encounter ‘imposter syndrome’ – the feeling that you’re a fraud and came to success only by accident or chance. These deeply rooted insecurities plague even the most successful women, with Pulitzer Prize nominee Maya Angelou famously admitting, “I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’”
Another challenge presented by traditionally male-dominated industries is in direct contradiction to the ‘sisterhood’ mentality – the phenomenon of ‘scarcity threat’. Some organisations have observed that when women believe that leadership roles available to them within an organisation are scarce, competition ensues. This may result in a subconscious preference for women to hinder the progression of other women – essentially sabotaging an organisation’s diversity efforts from the inside out. But as soon as the feeling of scarcity is removed, this subconscious motivation subsides.
By highlighting the talents and celebrating the achievements of women, we create supportive environments where we can all thrive. Celebrating the women around us can be as simple as using “yes and” statements to highlight credit when it’s due, for example “Yes Amanda’s brief hit the mark, and Sophie’s client management helped close the deal”, but can also extend to greater celebrations such as nominating individuals for team, firm and industry awards.
In short as noted by Justice Derrington, “we are all in it together” and we should celebrate the wonderful men and women who contribute to the constantly evolving legal industry as we strive for diversity of gender, and of thought.
Firms are currently redesigning the role of lawyers to address one of the barriers to diversity in the legal industry – the lack of workplace flexibility.
A key issue that emerges when discussing workplace flexibility is that it’s a ‘women’s issue’, when in reality that connotation is long past its use by date.
The landscape has changed
When the idea of flexible working first emerged as an academic concept in the 1960s and 70s, one of the key objectives cited was to increase women’s participation in the labour force. While this goal remains somewhat relevant today, women are clearly not the only beneficiaries of flexible work arrangements.
Workplace flexibility is no more a women’s issue than it is a men’s issue. Now more so than ever it’s plainly a business issue, with flexible practice integral to supporting a healthy workforce, better understanding client needs and delivering improved bottom line performance.
De-gendering and shifting the focus to wellbeing
While we live in a society where women face workplace challenges stemming from parenting expectations, men also face significant barriers when seeking flexible work arrangements. A report from Bain and Company found that men who chose to work flexibly often face difficulties with management and are stigmatised.
McCullough Robertson Managing Partner Kristen Podagiel noted the results of recent engagement with Government clients around flexible working.
“We’ve been doing some round tables with a number of State and Commonwealth Government departments around how we bring flexibility into departments and how we actually create jobs that are truly flexible,” Ms Podagiel said.
“And we’ve found that men are just as interested in workplace flexibility as women are.
“We’ve also seen an increasing number of male employees at McCullough Robertson seeking out flexible work arrangements because they too want to play larger roles in their lives outside of work”.
Many of the reasons people seek more flexible work arrangements are not gender nuanced. An ageing population means that employees are remaining in the workforce longer and working in different capacities, sprawling cities are forcing longer commutes and encouraging remote models of work, and many physical and mental health conditions are often better managed by integrating work and home life in a way that differs from the traditional 9-5.
Perhaps particularly important to the legal profession is the motivation to work more flexibly as a way to manage health and wellbeing, especially mental health.
The culture of ‘overwork’ in law is well-reported, with almost half of lawyers working ‘very long’ hours – classified as 49 or more hours per week – higher than any other occupation in Australia. Strenuous workloads, significant overtime and high pressure environments are resulting in lawyers having the lowest psychological and psychosomatic health and wellbeing when compared to all other professions.
While flexible working practices are not a ‘cure all’, a survey conducted by consultancy Flexjobs found 77 per cent of respondents believed flexible work would allow them to be healthier. 86 per cent responded that flexible employment would cause them to be less stressed.
A compelling business case for flexible work
The anecdotal evidence in support of flexible working has been apparent for years, but only recently have more quantitative findings shown how flexible businesses can see benefits to the bottom line.
A recent Victorian Government study funded the development of a model to calculate the financial return on investment for organisations providing flexible work options, and then applied this model to three different organisations – a State Government agency, a not-for-profit health and aged care provider and a statutory corporation managing utilities.
When factoring the costs of implementing flexible work practices like management burden, onboarding costs and IT expenses, against the savings such as labour productivity, employee retention and reduced recruitment, all three organisations came out well ahead. Notably, the State Government agency was found to be saving roughly $31 million each year and the health and aged care not-for-profit roughly $23 million annually.
Law firms also stand to gain valuable client-servicing benefits from adopting flexible work practices. With the emergence of the gig economy and less structured employment, client businesses are becoming more varied, and servicing these clients may require firms to be available on varied schedules. Firms may also benefit from having first-hand experience of different employment arrangements as a way of better understanding their clients and how they operate.
Flexibility, from top to bottom
While firms have committed to implement flexible working practices, there is still a long way to go to ensure a culture of flexibility is embedded within organisations, with only 10 per cent of law firm partners currently working part time or having flexible working hours.
Justine Rowe, a Telstra Legal Services Executive, commented on the importance of leading from the top to ensure flexibility becomes the norm instead of the exception to the rule.
“When you see people moving further and further up the corporate structure, you don’t necessarily see people working flexibly at the top”, said Ms Rowe.
“It really comes down to mindset and leadership. If you are wanting your team to be grabbing flexible work opportunities with both hands, then you need to be role-modelling it as well.”
Ms Rowe also noted the shift away from hours present at the office towards a focus on work outcomes.
“I get the opportunity to almost have a social contract with the function that I’m supporting and about how I go about supporting them. I work from home every Friday, and we use virtual meeting rooms and a number of other mechanisms to engage with our workforce.”“I’m a lawyer that supports a function in our organisation, and I have a lot of flexibility about how I can support that function.
Changing the way we do business is never easy, and for an industry steeped in tradition and wedded to the practices of years gone by, change can often feel like tracking through mud. But with the benefits laid plainly on the table – both to organisations and the persons they employ – flexible working becomes less of an obligation and more of an opportunity.
Unconscious bias – the silent nemesis of diversity
At an industry event, Year 101: Women in law – the next 100 years, that took place earlier this year, a panel of senior female legal minds were asked “If you had $50,000 to spend on the development of women at your organisation, what would you spend it on?” Without missing a beat, McCullough Robertson Managing Partner Kristen Podagiel responded, “Unconscious bias training”.
Lifting the lid on unconscious bias is not only one way we can support the progression of women. It allows us to support all people in our workplace, regardless of gender, age, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, disability or any other attribute.
What is unconscious bias?
Unconscious biases are learned stereotypes that are automatic, unintentional, deeply ingrained, universal and able to influence behaviour. As humans, we like to believe that we control our own thoughts, actions and decision making, but in reality, this is rarely the case.
Our unconscious minds rely on these perceptions and stereotypes to allow us to quickly process what is going on around us. But as we all know, efficiency doesn’t always equal effectiveness, and sometimes the shortcuts our brains take cause us to unconsciously discriminate against others.
A challenge for even the most progressive and inclusive
The issue with unconscious bias is that it can gazump even the most progressive, egalitarian and well-intentioned people. A Boston University study highlighted the staggering results of unconscious bias when participants were asked to solve the following riddle:
A father and son are in a horrible car crash that kills the dad. The son is rushed to the hospital; just as he’s about to go under the knife, the surgeon says, “I can’t operate—that boy is my son!”. What relationship does the surgeon have with the boy?
While some participants scored ‘diversity’ points for suggesting the surgeon was the boy’s gay, second father, only 15% of participants suggested that the surgeon was the boy’s mother.
While we can’t change our personal experiences and the norms we’ve learned, we can take a step back to challenge why we are making certain decisions and become more aware of the quick judgements we draw.
Unconscious bias in the workplace
When apparent in the workplace, unconscious bias may result in talented people being overlooked during recruitment or not being given equal opportunity for development and career progression. It may also mean that diverse voices are not heard and that key decisions are impaired.
One of the most significant issues the legal industry faces is the lack of diversity among key decision makers – those at the top of the legal profession. While there is a roughly even proportion of male to female solicitors, only 28.5% of partners in Australian law firms are women. Beyond gender diversity in senior positions, the reality is even starker for people of colour and people with disabilities.
When largely homogenous groups hold much of the decision-making power, despite the best efforts of those decision-makers, unconscious bias is still at work. Our brains are hardwired towards patterns of familiarity and comfort, while difference is harder to accommodate.
Women may continue to be overlooked for demanding roles deemed incompatible with ‘family life’, older people may be disregarded for tasks requiring technological nous, and employees from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds may be stigmatised by stereotypical values and behaviours.
The challenge at hand
The barriers that unconscious bias present to diversity in the legal profession are significant enough that in 2017 the Law Council of Australia made unconscious bias training modules available to all Australian legal professionals.
But beyond one-off training sessions, there needs to be an organisational commitment to addressing unconscious bias.
McCullough Robertson HR Director Louise Ferris said we need to start recognising and talking about instances where we see unconscious bias affecting our workplace.
“The challenge lies in creating an environment where we can talk about unconscious bias and call out examples of bias in decision making in a way that is productive, as opposed to being critical of the decision makers themselves,” Ms Ferris said.
“It’s a conversation about challenging the social and cultural norms that have been impressed on us for so long, about learning from our challenges and mistakes and about being better prepared to manage our own personal biases in the future.
“From a practical perspective, we have to work hard to actively challenge our unconscious biases. This may include taking a test to identify these biases and then putting ourselves in situations where these can be challenged. Once we recognise that we have biases we can take steps to self-evaluate and call ourselves out on, as well as taking steps such as ‘blinding’ ourselves when making decisions.”
“Unless we’re rolling out unconscious bias training and really having people look at every significant decision they make through that lens, then we will get people into the industry, but there will be attrition,” she said.Managing Partner Kristen Podagiel noted the importance of targeting unconscious bias to ensure organisations can attract and retain the best talent from the diverse pool of people coming into the industry.
Unfortunately reprogramming the human brain is not as simple as installing the latest iOS update, but unconscious bias training can teach people how to interrupt classical thought pathways and make behavioural changes.
‘Silent’ problems like unconscious bias are notoriously difficult to identify and even more difficult to address, but in recognising the issue, taking practical steps to educate and by having the confidence to call out bias in respectful and productive ways, perhaps we can begin to change the way individuals think, organisations operate and industries respond to an increasingly diverse workforce.