Women at the top in commercial law – a forum of leaders

Women in meeting
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Seize opportunities as they come up and don’t overthink the circumstances too much.

Law is by no means a male-dominated degree, but beyond graduation, certain fields of the profession see their female lawyers fall away. Why?

It can be lonely at the top for the few women who make it there, and whether intentional or not, male ideas and male culture tends to dominate how networks are formed.

Commercial law is one such field with fewer female lawyers ending up in senior roles.

Associate Professor Pauline Ridge, director of the Centre for Commercial Law at ANU College of Law said that testosterone-led networking sometimes played out at conferences.

“Not as many women are invited to speak at conferences, and when you do go there may be discussions that have followed on from socialising in the pub there previous night,” she said.

“There is one conference that has a football game and it’s a big tradition. The conference stops for the game but few of the women want to play football in the middle of a conference.”

A/Professor Ridge’s observations were echoed by ASIC Commissioner Cathie Armour, who said women who did rise up through the ranks often didn’t progress until later in their careers.

“It can be very lonely because you end up at events that are overwhelmingly male,” she said.

“”The key is to find your soul sisters and be supportive of each other. But also you can find elements of that male culture that can help your career.

“The most outstanding managers – male or female – are the ones who are generous towards others. You can find confident leaders to mentor you and that can really help.”

Ms Armour will discuss the challenges around gender imbalance at the Women in Commercial Law Forum with three fellow ANU Law Alumni, Anne-Marie Allgrove, Amanda Harkness and Prue Bindon, who hold leadership roles in the profession.

Far from being a discussion to deter female students from the highly competitive field, the women will talk about their love for an exciting and diverse profession that has opened many doors for them.

They will also have a frank and fearless conversation about the challenges junior lawyers of either gender face while progressing their careers and why it is time to stop assuming these challenges are exclusive to women.

Ms Armour said it was time to stop putting career progression for women and family responsibilities in the same narrative.

“The preoccupation with this very necessary aspect of life for many women – starting and raising a family – suggests that it applies to all women and only women whether they are mothers or not,” she said.

“Inadvertently we stereotype women as people who only want to work part-time when in fact as a society we all face caring responsibilities at different times in our life.

As a manager Ms Harkness said it was important for employers to acknowledge the ups and downs that people experience throughout their life and apply that understanding to both genders.

“In my team I have more women than men. I put a strong emphasis on performance management and acknowledge that for both men and women, the workplace needs to offer a degree of flexibility as they experience the on and off ramps of different levels of commitment,” she said.

“The pressure of business means it may not offer the flexibility that you need but you have to be clear about your own rules of engagement and be able to renegotiate that as circumstances change. It’s a two-way street.”

Seek out opportunities and seize them

Anne-Marie Allgrove, a partner at Baker & McKenzie said it was important for women to seek out opportunities for exciting cases or promotions.

“One lesson I’ve learned and one that I want to reiterate at the event is to seize opportunities as they come up and don’t overthink the circumstances too much,” she said.

“I’ve had and continue to have an amazing career with incredible opportunities and challenges that I’ve really enjoyed. You do need to actively manage your career and not be afraid to speak out to ensure you maximise your career.”

All three women acknowledged the demands on commercial lawyers were great and at times relentless, but they all loved the diversity of the work and the opportunities that came with that.

“It’s not nine to five work, it never has been and it never will be and you’ve got to know that going in,” Ms Allgrove said.

“The upside to that is the work is interesting, you get to be challenged and of course you’re remunerated for that time.”

“It offers the ability to apply a broad range of disciplines rather than a silo of advising on one field,” Ms Harkness added.

“And it offers huge opportunities to look for new ways of doing things. To not just advise on what law is but what it could be.”

The three women will convene for the forum, which will be chaired by Prue Bindon, President of the Women Lawyers Association ACT and Associate Lecturer at ANU College of Law, on Thursday 9 March at the ANU Law school.

The forum is presented jointly by The Centre for Commercial Law, ANU Law Students' Society and the ANU Women in Law Organisation.

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Updated:  10 August 2015/Responsible Officer:  College General Manager, ANU College of Law/Page Contact:  Law Marketing Team