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QLS President shines a light on women in law

International Women’s Day was observed this week, on Tuesday 8 March, to celebrate women’s social, economic, cultural and political achievements.

This year’s theme was #BreakTheBias, with an aim of generating discussion on themes such as women’s equality, stereotypes, bias, gender parity and discrimination.

Queensland Law Society held an online panel session on the night, in partnership with the Bar Association of Queensland and the Women Lawyers Association of Queensland Inc., to commemorate the occasion.

Guest panellists Margaret Ridley, Dominic McGann, Amie Mish-Wills and Cate Heyworth-Smith QC shared their stories and discussed ways of improving women’s equality within the legal profession.

QLS President Kara Thomson spoke about the valuable contribution made by women in the profession and what ‘breaking the bias’ means to her.

An edited version of Ms Thomson’s speech follows.

Good evening and thank you for joining us this International Women’s Day. 

The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day, #BreakTheBias, means a lot not only to me but also the whole team at Queensland Law Society, and I know I’m not stretching the truth when I say likely the entire profession.

In recent years, the solicitors of Queensland have tipped the balance to now having over 50% women solicitors. That is an incredible feat and one which we readily see in practice, including with our own QLS Council members now making up 11 of the 13 positions.

It is over a century since the first woman, Agnes McWhinney, was admitted as a solicitor in Queensland, and almost a century since the first woman, Katherine McGregor, was admitted as a barrister in Queensland. 

I am proud of the progression we can see to date, but I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – we have a long way to go, which is why I believe this year’s theme is so important. It identifies one of the issues we are still facing, still dealing with and still trying to find a way forward.

Bias is actual, perceived and can be insidious. Bias comes about from our own experiences, thoughts, emotions, relationships, media and many other ways. We all have bias and experience bias in different ways.

Bias against women is real. Each woman you meet in life will have a story of their own experience with bias. It might be bias against a woman because of her looks, her age, lack of work experience without recognition of life experience to that point, bias against motherhood, and the list goes on and on.

In the legal profession, there are expectations that need to be met. A key example is the expectation that solicitors working in private firms, in order to secure the best roles, the best income, the best clients, need to be available and working significant hours. Over the years I have heard of expectations of lawyers working from 7am through to 6pm, some even later than that.

These expectations mean there is an automatic bias against, for example, women or primary care givers who may not be able to meet such demands and balance the needs of families. It leads to emotional stress, unbalance, burn out and resentment. And it is telling that whilst I say there are now more than 50% of our solicitors in Queensland who are women, we are yet to reach such gender parity in private practice where these types of biases are perhaps more likely to be prevalent.

In the paper on Sunday there was a lift-out about the term ‘girl boss’. The use of the word ‘girl’ has been a bug-bear of mine for many years. Why do we feel the need to refer to colleagues, peers and staff as ‘girls’ when they are in fact strong women making meaningful contributions to our society, the profession and acting as role models to our young people?

Why don’t we use the term ‘boys’ when referring to our male counter-parts? The answer is because to do so would fail to recognise their position, their contributions. So why don’t we afford our women the same respect?

It is an inherent and insidious bias that has been adopted by both men and women, something that is so ingrained that we really give it little thought in reality. But, when we stop and think about it, it really does highlight the very core issues with breaking bias against women.

I would call on each of you to reflect on your own interactions with your female peers, colleagues, friends and support staff. Do you inadvertently or otherwise further the bias? Are you prepared to more carefully consider the implications of your actions – can you reschedule that work breakfast meeting to lunch so your female lawyer doesn’t have to put her child in day care from 6am to 6pm? Can you change the tone of your language so that it reflects the respect that you already have for the individual but fail to demonstrate through your use of language?

The attrition rate from the profession remains too high. We know from statistics that women tend to leave the profession altogether or for not inconsiderable periods of time. Whilst it coincides with what may be the ‘norm’ in terms of child-rearing years, there are other lifestyle factors at play. If we get the balance right and women are encouraged through work-life balance and respect to remain in the profession, we can only be the beneficiaries of what will be a stronger profession.

Women have achieved a lot but there is a way to go. It is significant that our head of jurisdiction in the Queensland Courts is a woman and another strong woman is about to take over. The same can be said about the strong leadership in the High Court. We have seen female presidents of both the Bar Association and Queensland Law Society, and the Women’s Law Association of Queensland is a strong and respected advocate. Our State Government is led by a woman, our Attorney-General is a woman.

As Beyonce says: ‘Who runs the world?’ Well, the answer is not ‘girls’, the answer is the ‘women’ – and they are likely the women sitting next to you, your daughter, granddaughter, niece, sister, mum, friend – and I am sure you are all as excited to see what they bring to the table in the future as I am.

I look forward to carrying on this conversation with you all this year – Happy International Women’s Day.

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