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Women face significant discrimination, research shows

11 April 2014

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Women lawyers face “a very high level of discrimination and harassment at work,” a new study commissioned by the Law Council of Australia has found.

“One in two women and more than one in three men, have been bullied or intimidated in their current workplace,” was one of the key findings of the study,

Called the National Attrition and Re-engagement Study, it gathered data from 3,801 practising lawyers, 84 lawyers who have left the profession and 75 law graduates who have not practised.

While discrimination and harassment had been encountered by a significant proportion of the profession, women were “significantly more likely than men” to have experienced a range of types of discriminatory behaviour.

Half of all women reported experiencing discrimination due to their gender. That compared with just over one in 10 men.

One in four women said they had experienced sexual harassment in their workplace.

“Approximately one in four women have been discriminated against due to family or carer responsibilities, and a similar proportion have experienced sexual harassment at work,” the survey report said.

“Experiences of gender discrimination range from blatantly different treatment to subtler forms of prejudice that are harder to articulate.

“Overt reported experiences of gender discrimination included being allocated different types of work, being denied access to opportunities, and being rejected or judged as less competent by clients and colleagues.

“Subtler forms of reported gender discrimination included the use of demeaning and condescending language by colleagues or clients, exclusion from conversation or social activities, and the workplace culture.”

A number of women also disclosed experiences of receiving unwanted advances, feeling objectified or being exposed to inappropriate sexual behaviour.

“There is a perception of conscious or unconscious bias against women who adopt flexible working arrangements to balance family responsibilities,” the report said.

“Women also identified practical and cultural barriers to their progression. For women with children, balancing family responsibilities was a recognised challenge.”

While a range of flexible working arrangements might be available for these women, the research suggests that taking them up could have a negative impact on progression prospects.

“Particularly in larger private firms, study participants reported several negative impacts of utilising flexible working arrangements. These included being allocated unsatisfying work, being passed by for promotion, and dealing with colleagues’ assumptions that because they had accessed flexible working arrangements, their priorities lay outside work.”

The relative lack of women in senior leadership positions is seen to contribute to a “male-dominated culture in which it is difficult for women to progress”.

A number of women also indicated that the prevalence of men in senior positions presented cultural barriers to their own progression.

“Whether conscious or unconscious, the role of favouritism, personal relationships and alliances in the promotion process was seen to potentially favour male candidates in workplaces led by fellow men.

“Many participants view large law firms in particular as being overly competitive (influenced perhaps by the inherently adversarial nature of legal work) with a male-dominated culture that is experienced as alienating by women.”

Long working hours and poor work-life balance impact both male and female lawyers, the report said.

A number of drivers of dissatisfaction were common to both men and women, notably with respect to the required working hours and the pressure of billable commitments for those in private firms. For both genders, these factors often contribute to degradation in work-life balance, which for many may become unsustainable.

“This finding is significant as it highlights the importance of flexible work practices that facilitate work-life balance across the profession (not just for working mothers),” the report said.

Women experience career development and career progression opportunities differently to their male counterparts.

Women lawyers identified particular dissatisfaction with elements of career development and progression in their workplace.

With respect to their current role, close to one in three females expressed dissatisfaction with the accessibility of mentors to support their career development, and with the opportunities they had for promotion and advancement. Reflecting on their legal career to date, a similar proportion expressed dissatisfaction with the rate of career progression and their career trajectory compared to their expectations.

In contrast, less than one in five male lawyers expressed dissatisfaction with these aspects of their current role and career to date.

The report also noted that over one in three women were considering moving to a new job within the next five years.

“Females in private practice were most likely to be considering taking up an in-house role.

“Close to 40% of women intending to leave their private practice role indicated they were looking to move in-house, compared to around 25% of men.

“Conversely, men were over twice as likely as women to be considering leaving their private firm for the bar.”

The full report, which runs to some 150 pages, is at www.lawcouncil.asn.au/lawcouncil/images/LCA-PDF/NARS%20Report_WEB.pdf.

Last updated on the 17th March 2016