More work to be done to reach gender equality in Australian law firms

December 2, 2011 Progress toward gender equality is proceeding at a faster clip in the Australian public sector than in private practice, according to a new report released by the NSW Law Society.

According to ‘The Advancement of Women in the Profession Report and Recommendation’, women accounted for 46 per cent of the 24,000 practitioners in NSW last year, but 23 per cent of partners in large law firms (those with 40 or more partners) were women. In mid sized firms (those with 11 to 20 partners) only 18 per cent are women, while in firms with between five and 10 partners only 17 percent are women.

Sharon Cook, the managing partner at Henry Davis York and the only female managing partner of a top 30 law firm in Australia, acknowledges that there has been some progress over the last five years, but that on the whole the statistics were woeful. Cook says that the cultural change that is needed won’t just happen without effort. The only way for firms to truly embrace equality across senior management, she says, is for firms to view diversity as a business imperative. “There needs to be a vision and goals, a strategy, communication of the vision and goals to the whole firm, execution of the strategy and measurement of the achievement of the vision and goals,” she said.

“When I became a partner at HDY in 1997 there were only three female partners. We now have 15 female partners, which amounts to 26 percent of our partnership … And having so many women in senior leadership positions has certainly not harmed the firm's success. Indeed I would argue that it has enhanced it. Since I became managing partner we have had three years of continuous revenue growth – 14.5 percent, 16 percent and five percent in FY2011.”

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