The gender pay and leadership gaps are yet further indicators of how we devalue women and girls in society.
We must rethink and reframe this.
Recently, President of the Law Council of Australia Fiona McLeod SC delivered a stunning call to arms to women during a speech at the Margaret Nyland AM Long Lunch. With permission, we’ve published the following extract.
A decade ago, we thought the best way to support the advancement of women lawyers in numbers was to emphasise gendered differences – stereotypically thought to include nurturing, caring and conciliatory tendencies for women compared with chivalrous, authoritative and aggressive tendencies for men.
The problem is that these stereotypes reinforced the unconscious biases at play – that inherently men make better partners, barristers and judges because of those qualities.
Because they make better heroes and that’s apparently what clients and the law demands.
While there is certainly a case for a diversity of talents in all workplaces including the Bar, we are beginning to realise that the differences model that dominates popular thinking about gender may not have helped our marketing of women lawyers that much.
I recently read a published study ‘The Gender Similarities Hypothesis’ examining meta-data studies concerning the stereotype gendered physical and psychological differences. The study (which reviewed 1000s of peer reviewed published studies) concludes that there are three statistically significant differences between men and women.
1. Physical strength – for example, men throw further and faster than women, especially after puberty.
2. Physical aggression – men demonstrate more physical aggression, but interestingly on verbal aggression measures there is no significant difference; and
3. What is the third statistically significant difference? Men report thinking more about in casual sex.
So let us kill off, for once and for all, the notion that men and women are different when it comes to any relevant talent or tendency as legal advisers, strategists and advocates.
Some people exhibit different personal traits. Those differences enrich us all. Painting women as having a set of gender specific characteristics relevant to their performance as lawyers, as advocates or as negotiations or anything else is potentially divisive and pushes younger women towards a need to conform to the advocate-warrior stereotype.
It also reinforces the stereotype that leads inevitably to decisions about who get hard cases and arduous briefs – not out of malice in 99 per cent cases, but well intended because they need to send you home to your kids or to protect you from the vulgar client, or just that it’s a man’s job because it needs a fighter.
This reinforces our notions about our heroes, our national icons: the digger in his slouch hat and uniform with shining badges defending the weak with force of arms; the glorious strength of the young footy player; and even the laconic joker entertaining mates over the BBQ. Marketing experts understand this mythology all too well.
But apart from some nominally and transitionally heroic women, or imaginary hot women with capes and super powers, our heroes are nearly all male and in many instances their sexual prowess and physical aggression is condoned and even glorified.
This aggression translates into men’s own expectations about how they should be men, how they should relate to us and to each other.
So we must identify and address bias – and consider how best to encourage real action on this issue.
We need leadership.
As Elizabeth Broderick has said “you can’t be what you can’t see”.
When leaders speak, rationally and with authority, they are heard.
We need them to state the business case, to direct policy developments and commitments, to identify and nurture the next cohort.
To convince others that it costs, in terms of morale, productivity, human capital, the costs of retraining and lost investment, to lose women from the workforce.
We need leaders to reward effective behaviour. To insist upon transparency of criteria for advancement and the allocation of work.
We need our next generation of leaders to know, that they will be judged suitable for advancement when they demonstrate a commitment to diversity.
We definitely need to see women leading – not one off’s – but in large numbers.
And when those leaders do speak out, we, all of us, need to thank and support them with a multitude of voices so they know they are not alone, not undermined by pernicious sniping.
For those of us pressing the agenda it has been sometimes difficult, perplexing and even sometimes humiliating to be told we are only complaining because we are no good at it.
We go hell for leather, impatient at the pace of change, only to be worn out by the effort and the lack of progress.
So we need institutional change. Generational change, change that sticks.
We want to be counted as capable, hardworking, clever, talented advocates and lawyers who are women, not as handmaidens who had to adopt male stereotypes of conduct to succeed.
We want work to be a place we want to come to work, not continually looking over our shoulders for the sexist put down or innuendo, or afraid of worse.
I invite you to consider that the reason it has been so hard is because women are not valued as men are, that our social and economic standing reflects a deeply entrenched belief that girls are less worthy.
Our privileged view as professionals can sometimes mask the grinding reality for other women in society.
The pay differential translates into lifelong insecurity and dependency for many.
Women experience violence and abuse in confounding numbers and are increasingly at risk of homelessness, incarceration, mental illness and isolation.
We often suffer in silence, paralysed by the fear of worse if we seek help.
Women continue to be impoverished, prostituted, trafficked, abducted, idealised, assaulted, exploited and murdered in the home, at work, in public here and overseas.
We are swamped by images of women’s bodies selling things – de-identified, disembodied, objectified, pornographised, ever younger and thinner, photo-shopped beyond any resemblance to real faces and bodies in the fulfillment of endless appetite for sexual fulfillment.
We expect women in the public eye to be young and thin, then criticise them for being so.
We join in the chorus of criticism of each other’s appearances, we put up with the vile marketing humor where the thin veneer of violence sells things to men who are encouraged to enjoy or turn a blind eye.
We sexualise our girls way too young.
We have become overwhelmed and inured to stories of abuse, with such low expectations of the treatment of women and children here and overseas that we barely register the treatment as abuse until it touches someone we love.
We vanish our elder women and condone the silencing of their voices and the diminishing of their sexuality.
We cut down women who succeed.
The solutions for these issues are complex but are certainly within our grasp – with will and creativity.
At the core, we need to expose and reframe our deep held beliefs about girls and women’s worth in society – to celebrate the feisty boisterous nature of girls, to encourage them to express themselves and their needs and dreams fully and frankly as we do our boys.
To resist the temptation to idealise and sexualise them.
To observe and record the points along the way at which being ‘like a girl’ diminishes us, rather than celebrates us.
We need to start with a common vision.
What would the world look like if those girls and women of 1948 had followed the path promised by the Universal Declaration over the last 70 years.
If we were truly free, truly empowered to participate in society, fed, educated, housed, employed and employing others, respected, appreciated, expressing themselves freely, leading our institutions and our communities?
We have been there at a tipping point, and we can be there again.
We need the economic tools to demonstrate that when women participate in society the whole community benefits, to reframe policy decisions to factor in the long-term cost to community when women do not.
The financial know-how to show that new business models that entrench flexibility and reward new fee structures can be highly profitable.
We need to harness the skills of those with a proven track record of creating and then entrenching organisational change. Change that outlives the occasional passionate leader.
And we need the tools to sell the message that equality is an idea whose time has come.
To fire imaginations and bring others with us.
Lawyers by training are problem solvers, excited by puzzles and the emotional and intellectual stimulation that comes from solving them.
We are conflict managers, familiar with human experience, using our wits and instincts and turning it to our particulars ends.
Our tools are words. Words that reason, berate, soothe, cajole and admonish.
But words alone have not been enough to break through. So we need new tools.
We have never before been equipped with the power to reach out to others so cheaply and quickly, to harness an unimaginable power of creativity and collaboration with grass roots funding and direct participation. In the last decade we have seen the emergence of GetUp, Avaaz, All Out, the Rules and Peers to name a few.
Social media absorbs our attention for hours of every day. People are longing for ways to hear and tell, to participate in stories that resonate and unite us in our common humanity.
We need to tell simple and authentic stories, of success and survival, of pain and loss, to share and respect the contribution of others as we have done for centuries.
To pool the collective wisdom of the fireplace, where lessons are learned in stories told in the leaping flames, accepting that this problem is so big that we need all of us to solve it.
We need to take our stories and collaborate with those who speak directly through pictures, music and simple messages to millions.
To collect up the dreamers, activists, organisers, creatives, nerds, story tellers, economists and policy designers to create a new wave, to help us move on into a new century for women, the one promised to us decades ago.
We have been swamped by male heroic images for so long that we are not even aware of the absence of women.
We need to be swamped with images of our everyday success – not the super women prime ministers, governors and Chief Justices, but mums working at home and fathers working from home too, making lunches and braiding their daughters’ hair for school.
We need to see young girls, without make-up, studying science, working with power tools and surfing; women leading meetings and giving expert evidence in court; women pilots, engineers, fire fighters, soldiers and miners.
And we need to see women lawyers, doing it full-time and part-time, leading teams and firms and court cases, on the bench and off to make a new normal.
Normal women, juggling and coping, alongside men who are juggling and coping.
We need to back each other up in our endeavors – so when the question of promotion or advancement or appointment comes up and someone says ‘she’s not ready’ or ‘she’s not really that good’, a chorus of our voices say ‘yes she is’.
Each of you in this room is one of the most privileged best educated enabled woman on the planet. It’s a great honour, held on trust for future women, for the profession and the future.
So I want to ask some things of you today for the years ahead.
Be authentic – with each other and with others.
Be wary of group-think – there is no way right way to be a lawyer, there is no right personality. Diversity is to be cherished and valued.
Be brave in the goals you set for yourself and then walk tall through life unashamed of those goals.
Use your voice – in defence of those who are powerless and those who are vulnerable, and to name injustice when you see it, because there is nothing more satisfying than using your learning and your training in the service of others.
And finally, I want you to walk through life remembering that you have the capacity to light up the room, any room – because you are all extraordinary.
And when you know it, you are unstoppable.