Gender divide stark on part-time work at law firms

Almost a quarter of female law firm partners work part-time but men are reluctant to work flexibly or take parental leave because of “cultural and structural barriers” in the profession.

Women Lawyers NSW said its annual law firm comparison project showed the “glass ceiling” is firmly in place at many firms for women who want to graduate from senior associate to partner.

The 2019 examination of data from The Australian Financial Review Law Partnership Survey and the Workplace Gender Equality Agency also underlined the “feminisation” of the legal profession, with women outnumbering men by two to one at some firms.

The president of Women Lawyers NSW, barrister Larissa Andelman, said men were shunning the opportunities on offer for flexible work.

“Only 4 per cent of male partners work part-time. By contrast, 24 per cent of all female partners work part-time,” she said.

“The vast difference in the figures reflects the unbalanced caring responsibilities women have and is a significant contributor to the gender wage gap and the lower percentage of women in partnership ranks, where still over 91 per cent of partners work full-time.”

Ms Andelman said that to support women at work, employers needed to support men to take up a greater share of caring responsibilities.

Despite 49 of the 61 firms surveyed offering paid leave for primary and secondary carers, very few men take parental leave as a carer. The report cited WGEA figures for 2017-18 that show only 58 men took paid parental leave as the primary caregiver, and 315 as a secondary caregiver, compared with 1551 and 18 women.

‘Unacceptable for men’

“This has to be a focus for firms, not just to support women, but to break down the cultural and structural barriers that make it unacceptable for men to work flexibly or take parental leave,” Ms Andelman said.

While none of the firms in the study had more than 50 per cent female partners, women comprised more than 50 per cent of senior associates at almost every firm.

Ms Andelman said this suggested that “the pipeline is not the issue”.

“Rather, the glass ceiling remains strongly placed between senior associate and partner level in some firms.

“Unless this gap is narrowed, we will not see firms achieve a more gender-balanced partnership ratio, and it raises the question of what structural or cultural barriers are in place that are preventing women from making the transition from senior associate to partner, and whether there needs to be a rethink of the traditional requirements to achieve partnership.”

The report also underlines how women now dominate the legal workforce. The 10 largest firms in the survey all had more than 400 legal professionals (those working permanent and part-time, on contracts and graduates). In this wider group, around one in four women also work part-time.

40/40/20 target

The report pointed out that the WGEA figures for 2017-2018 showed the gender pay gap for legal services employees was 26.2 per cent, compared with the average across all industries of 21 per cent.

Women Lawyers NSW is a strong advocate of firms adopting a 40/40/20 target for partner promotions – 40 per cent male, 40 per cent female and the remainder dependent on the pool of candidates.

The report said 13 firms had an average of at least 40 per cent female promotions: Clayton Utz, Maddocks, Corrs Chambers Westgarth, Herbert Smith Freehills, Holding Redlich, Ashurst, King & Wood Mallesons, Gadens, Allens, Minter Ellison, Gilbert + Tobin, Baker McKenzie and Lander & Rogers.

Three were over 50 per cent: Clayton Utz, Maddocks and Holding Redlich.

Michael Pelly, Legal Affairs Editor, Financial Review
Nov 15, 2019 — 12.00am

Back to Press / Speeches