23:05, June 01 89 0 theguardian.com

2017-06-01 23:05:03

 

Gender bias still rife in legal profession despite rhetoric, says Kate Jenkins

When the sex discrimination commissioner, Kate Jenkins, was a junior lawyer in the early 1990s, she noticed slightly older women disappearing from the office.

They had left to have children and never returned, and the legal profession was happy to see them go. Anyone who could not make a blind commitment to the 24/7 hours and fast pace demanded by top-tier law firms had no place in the company. And anyway, everyone knew women were happier at home with the children.

That was 25 years ago. In a speech entitled Raising the Bar, Jenkins told a largely female audience of legal professionals in Melbourne on Friday that in 2017 the rhetoric and policies had changed but the culture of many firms remained the same.

Australia as a whole was “more fixated than most countries on this idea that a good mother stays home and a good man goes to work and is a full-time breadwinner”, Jenkins said.

She blamed that attitude for the staggering gap between the education of women – Australia was ranked equal first in the World Economic Forum’s global gender gap report in 2016 – and the country’s overall ranking of 46th.

“For women who return to work after 12 months full time, I haven’t met a woman who hasn’t said ‘I was questioned why I was doing that,’ ” Jenkins said. “The underlying expectation is a woman should stay home and also should be compromising their career, and that if they’re at work, even full time, they’re not fully focused.

“I’ve got ...many anecdotes but my personal experience was the same ... I was told, basically, ‘Don’t worry about this, love. You’ll probably fall in love with your baby and want to stay home.’ And it’s like, well of course I’m going to fall in love with my baby, but I felt like my career was dripping.”

Jenkins made the comment in response to a senior female barrister who had asked, with the kind of controlled anger that is probably terrifying in the courtroom, why people kept congratulating her husband for knowing how to bake a cake.

“I work seven days a week and my husband is doing his doctorate,” she said. “People ask me who is looking after the children when I’m at court, people ask me how many days a week I work, and people ask him, ‘How do you do it? You’re so amazing! You can cook a cake and you can look after children!”

The barrister was “just a little bit fed up” with the gendered assumptions and the expectations and pressures placed on men and women to fit their given roles.

“I think this is a major problem,” Jenkins said. “It’s also a major problem for men: men want to engage as parents, and children are better off when they’ve got parents who are engaged in their work but also with them.”

Jenkins had begun the talk with an anecdote about being approached by a male lawyer at dinner one night who demanded to know why Australia had not achieved gender equality. Later, at the same dinner, she had spoken to his wife, who had revealed that while her husband had made partner she had dropped down to working two days a week – despite starting at the same law firm – to care for their five-year-old twins.

“This is no longer about a bad guy,” Jenkins said. “There are an accumulation of circumstances; there are social norms that lead people’s lives in a particular way.”

Those social norms could demonstrably not be shifted by workplaces implementing policies and complaints procedures for sexual harassment and discrimination, Jenkins said, because those policies had been in place for 25 years and equality had still not been achieved.

It was also not simply a matter of education. Young women in Australia are among the most educated people in the world, a fact Jenkins said “makes our [global] position on economic participation and opportunity even more devastating”.

“We get these women all the way to the top, we prove that we are fantastic, and then we plummet,” she said.

Jenkins said Australia needed to confront the underlying belief – held by half of all Australian men and a quarter of Australian women according to most research – that gender equality was no longer a problem.

“While it’s not open dinner party conversation, my experience in organisations is there is a very quiet resistance to any change, and the fact is change doesn’t happen because people actually think bringing in initiatives to advance women is discrimination against men,” she said.

She quoted a phrase, popularised on social media and now widely available as a T-shirt: “Equal rights for others does not mean less rights for you. It’s not pie.”

While discrimination in the workplace was no longer enshrined in law, as it was 50 years ago, or overt as it was 25 years ago in the form of regular sexual harassment at the photocopier or Friday night drinks, Jenkins said, there were still “a lot of people who are very happy with how the status quo is working and who are not actually very interested in change”.

“Generational change should have happened in my generation, and it hasn’t,” she said.