Australian women must hold their nerve until justice is served

Female barristers have had to challenge the male-dominated professional norms of the Bar. AAP/Gillian Ballard

Australian men and women in relatively equal numbers obtain undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in political science, law, medicine, business and economics. There is no shortage of women academics, doctors, lawyers, political advisers or business strategists. But their numbers dwindle in the higher echelons.

Women hold far fewer professorships, parliamentary seats, board positions, senior corporate law jobs and top business leadership roles than men. When women do get into high-status positions, they often face a range of challenges that men do not. Even once they overcome these, senior women can draw criticism for operating in ways that replicate the norms of the male-dominated professional culture, rather than challenging them.

But how can exclusive, male-dominated and essentially conservative professional cultures be effectively challenged? How might women’s perceptions and lived experience bring about subtle shifts from within? Our recent research into work–life balance among barristers suggests we can learn much from how some successful senior women negotiate male-biased cultural norms.

Australian women at the Bar

Like women in senior roles in politics, medicine and business, many female barristers juggle primary care responsibilities in their families alongside inflexible work schedules. They often experience open and subtle forms of sexual harassment, intimidation and discrimination.

Like their male colleagues, they need mentors from their male-dominated cohort to inculcate them into the codes and practices of the profession and help them advance. Mentors who are sympathetic to the particular challenges women at the Bar face can be hard to find.

In Australia today women make up an estimated 60% of all law students, but only 19% of practising barristers. Australian Women Lawyers report that only 7.9% of practising silks (senior barristers) are women.

In contrast to the 20% or so of childless male barristers, 50% of female barristers have no children. Men tend to join the Bar earlier and have longer careers.

And women’s experiences as barristers are markedly different from men’s. Women barristers appear in court for much shorter periods than their male colleagues. They are more likely to be given a government brief than one from a private law firm.

Revaluing family care

Although self-employed, barristers must be prepared for court appearances whenever they arise, countering the illusion of flexible work hours. The rigorous demands of court are particularly incompatible with family care.

Both men and women in the Victoria University research reported heavy reliance upon partner and wider family networks in maintaining their career. However, one woman noted that most of the male barristers she knew had very “traditional arrangements” with their partners. The few women who survived were “lucky enough” to have supportive partners.

Despite the devaluing of family and care commitments in dominant Bar culture, successful women barristers found ways to manage the tension between family priorities and a professional persona. One talked about how she carefully weighed up what information to share with solicitors and, in particular:

…whether you’re going to be upfront about saying “no, I’m not going to do that because I’ve got family responsibilities”.

Senior women at the Bar can subvert the dominant culture when they accommodate the impact of care responsibilities on junior barristers. As mentors, their flexibility can make family life visible and counter norms around care. One silk explained:

I know that the women I work with, they’re going to do the work … if it gets done between 11pm and midnight or 1am it will be there when I open up my computer in the morning. And that’s how I always tried to work. I’d often take phone calls at the school at half past three when I was picking up the kids, but then I’d go home and settle them down and do the work.

Different ideas of collegiality and success

Both men and women barristers face challenges in striking a work-life balance. Surviving the adversarial and competitive court culture requires mentors and barrister networks. These are usually cultivated through regular after-hours drinking and socialising.

Perhaps because there is a pressure to conform with Bar culture in order to succeed, younger junior women barristers tended to characterise such practices as “gender neutral”, with comments like “male or female, they’re all pals”. However other women described it as a “very superficial collegiality”.

These women stressed, instead, the importance of cultivating a strong female professional network of mentors and seeking out female peers. Such practices extend Bar culture in new ways. By making gender dynamics visible, they counter the cultural myth that the Bar is gender-neutral.

The Bar’s conservative traditions are not gender-neutral. AAP/Dean Lewins

The Bar perpetuates its exclusive values through a narrative of prestige and privilege; barristers undeniably feel that they are entering an exciting and exclusive club. But women in the research who had maintained a “critical distance” from the culture of success articulated tensions between their identities as women and professionals.

For example, one woman talked about the “sense of entitlement” many male barristers had because of their education (predominantly private schools) and networks.

Their noses are really put out of joint when women are preferred for appointments or for silk or for any of those kinds of things.

Another woman explained:

Although it can be intellectually satisfying, you would be crazy to think that in the long term [the Bar culture] is going to be properly emotionally satisfying for you.

While able to enjoy her position, she maintained a critical stance that allowed her to have reservations about the dominant norms rather than simply reproducing them. She commented that it was:

…very nice having that prestige of being a lawyer, and you would be a fool to say it doesn’t exist. Because it does. I find that disturbing. I don’t like the idea.

Holding their nerve

Research suggests that gender bias continues to impede women’s progress in our most important institutions in politics, economics, health, education and the law. Yet if women in leadership openly complain of gender bias, they run the risk of being vilified by colleagues, competitors and the media for “playing the gender card”.

A recent issue of Griffith Review on the theme of Women and Power editorialised that in a transformative new century Australian women need to:

…hold our nerve, and transcend the “witch, liar, troll” backlash.

But what exactly does this involve for women who enter elite professions?

Many elite, male-dominated professional cultures work to render the demands of family life invisible. Women’s choices to openly acknowledge and make time for the demands of life outside work, cultivate supportive female professional networks and mentor junior women may be shifting the way things are done.

Acting as faultlines, individual practices such as these may be helping to counter norms that have long kept seemingly impervious, male-biased professional cultures in place.

Identifying the various ways in which women “hold their nerve” in male-dominated professions may shed light on how Australian professions and institutions can be truly transformed for the next generation.

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