Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Question of Quotas for Women in Australia

Today we  welcome guest blogger Anne Wardell, Deputy Editor in Chief of the CCH Law
& Business team and co-administrator of the Law Chat blog. Previously, she was the National Director of Insolvency for the Australian Taxation Office and member of the Victorian Bar, specializing in insolvency and commercial law.

Anne weighs in on the issue of gender quotas raised in a prior post in a four-part series. 

In Australia we recently had a new conservative government elected. At the swearing-in ceremony for the new Ministers it was starkly apparent that there would be only one female member of the Cabinet, which is a collection of the most senior Ministers of the government and the ones who make the decisions.  This caused a lot of comment in both the media and social networks.  Adding fuel to the fire the new Prime Minister appointed himself as the new Minister for Women’s Affairs.

He had spent much of the election campaign flanked by his two very attractive adult daughters in an effort one surmises to show his support for women.  He had been the subject of a now famous speech on misogyny by the former Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, who was the first female PM in Australia.  He did not help his cause when describing one young candidate from his party as having ‘sex appeal’.  This was excused as a ‘dad moment’ but many commentators argued that this highlighted his true view of women.

The lack of women in the new government has raised the issue of merit-based advancement versus quotas.  One of our social commentators in Australia, Jane Caro, wrote a thought-provoking article on this, Promotion on — ahem — merit? It’s hard to see how …

Reading this article made me think back to a time in my career when I was a new barrister (court attorney) at the Victorian Bar.  At the time it was a very traditional, conservative and male-dominated institution. Official correspondence was addressed to me by my surname; very English boarding school’esque. Women barristers were in the minority, much as women partners in law firms were also a minority.  This was despite the fact that women represented roughly half of the law graduates. 

The Victorian Women’s Bar Association was formed.  The male barristers on my floor asked me why we women needed a special club.  When notices about meetings were placed in the lift some ‘wag’ always wrote on them ‘Ladies please bring a plate’.  Whenever I returned from a meeting the men wanted to know what we had discussed. They seemed threatened by the idea of women meeting to discuss things that they were not privy to. Yet women for centuries have been subjected to decisions and meetings which impact their lives where they have had no voice; decisions
made for them about domestic and financial matters by men. 

One of the initiatives put forward by some women at the bar was the idea of introducing a quota system to ensure that women barristers received a fair distribution of the work on offer.  Lawyers (attorneys) would be required to send a certain percentage of their court briefs to women barristers.  At the time I was in my early 30s and was opposed to the idea.  I wanted to be judged on my own merit and make my way because I was a good barrister, not because of some system which would force solicitors to use me.  I was vocal in my opposition to this, which pleased my male colleagues I am sure.

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/gender_law/2013/09/the-question-of-quotas-for-women-in-australia.html

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