10 June 2011

Sex Discrimination in Law Firms - Life in the firm still no picnic for women

Former Clayton Utz lawyer Bridgette Styles has filed a sexual harrasment claim against the top-flight firm.

Former Clayton Utz lawyer Bridgette Styles has filed a sexual harrasment claim against the top-flight firm.

It is depressing to read that more than 25 years since the introduction of the Sex Discrimination Act, and when universities are pumping out more female graduates than ever before, allegations of sexual harassment are being made by a young lawyer, Bridgette Styles, against a large Sydney law firm.

Many of us who have worked in law firms would love to say we are surprised by the news but, sadly, actual and anecdotal evidence would suggest such behaviour remains a part of life in a firm for many women.

When I was working in a large law firm in the early 1990s, some partners would take all the male lawyers in their team to lunch, leaving the female solicitors (with the secretaries) sitting at their desks with a sandwich.

Pregnant with my first child, I didn't get an annual pay rise that was awarded to all my peers. When I whinged to a male colleague the same age, he said in all seriousness, ''Well, why would you? You're leaving to have a baby.''

In a deeply competitive, dog-eat-dog environment, where a colleague's desk could be cleared overnight, we were too scared to challenge demeaning and insulting inequities.

The mantra fed to all young lawyers, who in turn learnt to behave like victims of Stockholm syndrome, was that we should feel so very grateful for having earned a place in such a prestigious workplace. We knew intuitively that complaining about conditions could lead to sacking, and most women lawyers would no doubt agree they felt the more vulnerable gender.

For many practising in the 1990s, Marea Hickey's decision to prosecute her case against Hunt & Hunt, when her fellow partners denied her the right to return to work on a part-time basis after maternity leave, was a seminal moment, especially for female lawyers.

It would, however, be fair to say that many of us paused, took a breath, and hoped like hell that women lawyers would not then be marginalised and perceived as a litigious impediment in the workplace.

Thankfully, conditions have improved. While some of the change in attitude is attributable to legislative reforms that have forced law firms - like all businesses - to adjust their employment practices, many firms have taken the initiative to actively develop ''family-friendly'' policies. They appear to have had an epiphany, realising that training, and then losing, some of their brightest women is detrimental to the business model and ultimately to their reputation.

As recently as this year, however, I heard of a case where a young (recently engaged) woman making budget was being managed out of an underperforming practice group in a large firm. In terminating her employment, the male partner told her that losing her job would not be the end of the world because she would soon be married and at home having babies. No doubt her colleagues who survived the cut stayed silent, smugly congratulating themselves for being tougher, smarter and better employees, and thus perpetuating the means-of-survival myth.

It is not unusual for relationships to form in the workplace, especially when colleagues work long hours, side by side. Law firms have always been notorious hotbeds for brief - and long-term - partnerships of the biblical kind. Feisty Friday night drinks are commonplace and other firm social functions often end with more than a hint of debauchery.

In the wash-up from these events, the water cooler talk the next dusty morning still tends to focus on flirtatious, drunken behaviour by women lawyers, not the men, when we all know it takes two to tango. What seems to be a badge of honour for a man is still a woman lawyer scorned.

Speaking out against injustices in any workplace takes courage, and for a young woman such as Styles to take on the might of a law firm - which has an obligation to know better under the Law Society's rules for maintaining a valid practising certificate - is a gutsy call. Especially when she, and many others before her, must be profoundly aware that even a judicial win may amount to a pyrrhic victory.



I hope this case will strike fear into the heart of every male in my industry - advertising. Like law, it's full of people who do know better, but still act as if their behaviour will never catch up with them. Go Bridgette.

Anonymous - June 09, 2011, 8:27AM

Congratulations to Ms Styles for fighting back and speaking up. It takes a lot of courage to stand up and even more courage to weather the storm of criticism and innuendo that will inevitably ensue.

What I can't understand is how ANYONE could be surprised about the ongoing mistreatment of females in large organisations. Male and female equality in most workplaces will continue to be a myth perpetrated by the powerful male establishment to placate those ambitious women who fail to understand their place in society - I mean, how dare we want the same treatment as our male counterparts? What are we thinking? I wish Ms Styles the very best for her future.

Keen observer | Qld - June 09, 2011, 8:23AM

This is all about a flawed culture, and a business model for legal firms that the rest of the business community considers arcane. The law firms have a culture of putting the ambitious (and often avaricious) together in a lump after recruitment and convincing them there is only one deeply competitive and low paid way - theirs. The Stockholm syndrome comment is a fascinating insight. But these are also bright young folk with unrivalled opportunity to make changes to their circumstances.
It is the business model that creates the pressure, and the culture that sustains it. Because of the prehistoric structures, the culture (including sexism) is changing at a slothful pace.But there's also a general issue of the entirely undeserved high regard the profession holds itself in, which is absurd.

SWRA - June 09, 2011, 8:16AM

Not originally being Australian is is rather entertaining to watch Australian males in postitions of power and as sporting 'role models' struggling to make it past the 19th century. Even when they have made good, they can't escape their origins. Australia - the last true bastion of male chauvinism!

StanGoodvibes | Sydney - June 09, 2011, 8:10AM

Well done Bridgette and Emma one bully at at time will change the culture. The only way to break the cycle of Stockholm syndrome is for some to challenge unethical behavior and that throws unhinges the bullies.

PeterCab | Canberra - June 09, 2011, 8:10AM

As an ordinary citizen of the world with the odd limb missing and other battle scars I somehow find the story about sharks attacking sharks enervating.

What better spectacle than to see exposed the legal profession for what it really is. May they all devour each other and leave the planet a better place.

justice-at-last | boondocks - June 09, 2011, 8:07AM

As a law student going through work experience training, I find articles (and situations!) like these incredibly disheartening.

I was told by my work place supervisor that in the legal world, I need to make a choice between being a "stay at home mother" or being a lawyer. Well, I already have three children, so I can't "unchose" motherhood.

However I have also worked incredibly hard over the last 15 years to obtain two degrees, whilst working part time and spending most of that time as a single mother. To be told I have to make a choice was shocking.

When I left recently, it was because I was told that they needed a full time employee and since I only wanted part time work, that would not be me.

What galled the most is that I do want full time work. I asked for part time work experience because I was combining study with family and work experience. Once I am done with the study (end of this month) it was always my intention to (return) to full time work.

When I said this to my supervisor, all I got was a dismissive "well, I can't see your family commitments changing anytime soon".

He doesn't really know me or my situation (other than that I took two days off when my youngest child had emergency surgery). He never asked what my intentions were. And this was not some big firm, rather, a small regional firm.

It hasn't put me off law, but has shone a spotlight on what kind of attitude awaits me in the workplace. Glad I'm warned!

Kelly | Home - June 09, 2011, 8:00AM

Don't poop in your own nest.

Cluey | Cloey - June 09, 2011, 7:59AM

I get what you're saying but I don't feel any sympathy for lawyers. So the male lawyers exploit the female lawyers and all lawyers exploit everyone else. I have a bit of trouble getting past that and onto the message about female discrimination in the workplace. If the story was about 'women in finance' or 'women in IT' then perhaps I'd give a damn.

jacorb effect | sydney - June 09, 2011, 7:44AM

This is indeed a sad state of affairs, but unfortunately it is demonstrative of the ever-present arrogance in the legal profession. As a lawyer, I have observed broadly arrogant behaviour (from both women and men) in the profession since my pre-admission days working in the industry and additionally, a healthy dose of misogyny and objectification thrown in the mix.

There are people who observe such behaviour in this profession and in the wider community who think "oh well, it will always be this way" and it is exactly this attitude which perpetuates the problem. I don't know about the veracity of Ms Styles claims and no doubt the full details will come out in the course of this hearing but there is no doubt that this is a serious problem for female lawyers, particularly in large firms.

Having said that, there are a lot of decent male lawyers out there who do not get caught up in this destructive and discriminatory culture and it is for these people to stand up for women (as well as women standing up for themselves) when they see that something wrong is happening. We've all heard the saying that "all it takes for evil to prevail is for good people to do nothing", but more people need to live by it. As you have rightly said, Emma, courage is key.

One final but minor observation from the photo caption - it says Ms Styles is suing the firm for sexual assault and defamation. I wasn't aware that one could bring a sexual assault action (whether civil or criminal) against a business. The only other observation is that Belinda Styles is a pretty awesome name.

Tiago | Sydney - June 09, 2011, 7:25AM

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