HARAM KWON and EMMA SHORTT
Volume 1, Issue 3 (Originally Published 12 March 2012)
In 1903, Grata Flos Matilda Greig graduated — ranked second on the honours list —from the University of Melbourne, becoming the first woman in Victoria, and second in Australia,* to attain a law degree. However, the legislation at the time of her graduation did not allow women to practice law.
Following the enactment of the Women's Disabilities Removal Act 1903 (Vic), passed with the help of MP John Mackey (one of Greig’s lecturers), Flos Greig became the first woman in Australia admitted to legal practice in 1905, and joined Cornwall Stodart as a solicitor. Nicknamed the “Flos Greig Enabling Act”, s 5 stated: "No person shall, by reason of sex be deemed to be under any disability for admission to practise as a barrister and solicitor of the Supreme Court of Victoria any law or usage to the contrary not withstanding."
In an article entitled ‘The Law as a Profession for Women’, written by Greig for the Commonwealth Law Review in 1909, she opined that ‘[t]he first women lawyers are hardly likely to make fortunes. The pioneer never does ... Nevertheless the legal profession is likely to prove of increasing interest to women’. Greig also thought that while a barrister’s work is more interesting, and women are more than capable of meeting its demands, ‘there will require to be several women well established in practice as solicitors, before one is likely to succeed as a barrister’. The most recent statistics from the Legal Services Board of Victoria show the accuracy of Greig’s predictions.
Women make up 44% of the overall number of registered practitioners, and the chart shows a steady increase over the last 50 years, from 8.6% to 63% over the last 50 years. However, there is still a marked imbalance between solicitors and barristers, with women only constituting 25% of the barristers, in comparison to 87% of the solicitors. This is similar to the proportion of female judges, which is 32% across all jurisdictions.
There is also a significant disparity at the partner level, women making up only 16% of partners, and 2.6% of the managing partners in Australia as at December 2008 (Australian Legal Business Week). The long hours, and the difficulty of balancing this with family commitments has been cited as one of the principal reason for this, along with lack of mentoring and role models. Many firms now seem to recognise the need for, and have put in place initiatives to facilitate women reaching the partnership level. Last year, 33% of the new appointees were female, The Australian reports.
This unfortunate disparity between men and women, in law and otherwise, is one of the focuses of International Women’s Day. IWD is celebrated annually on 8 March. With more than a century’s worth of celebration, IWD has fulfilled a role of honouring women’s advancement while maintaining a banner of the need for continued vigilance and action to ensure that women’s equality is gained and maintained in all aspects of life.
The MLS celebrated IWD with the annual ‘Champagne and Cupcakes’ event hosted by the LSS Women’s Officers, Clare Moss and Helen Santamaria. The women’s portfolio seeks to address many of the inequalities women still face in law. Some of the events for the coming year include ‘Afternoon Tea with Women in Law’ and guest speaker presentations on a variety of issues.
Haram Kwon, Emma Shortt
*Though Ada Emily Smith was the first woman in Australia to complete a law degree in 1902, NSW did not enact legislation allowing women to become legal practitioners until 1918.