Women Lawyers Face Career Threat When Juggling Family Duties

Melinda Griffiths Elder Law Wollongong

Women Lawyers Face Career Threat When Juggling Family Duties


Women make up the majority of law graduates, yet they often struggle to return to work after maternity leave and are dramatically underrepresented in senior positions within the legal industry.

One of the potential reasons for the imbalance is that the requirements of motherhood can be at odds with the workload of a lawyer. While it is a problem across many industries, the legal professional has an especially low rate of women returning to work after having a child.

“Women, to some degree, put their careers on hold and often it is seen by the company that they’re not serious about their career,” Law Society president of the district of Wollongong, Melinda Griffiths, said.

“They don’t get given the opportunities to become an equity partner. Based on the statistics, most lawyers work anywhere between 41-50 hours per week, so that’s very difficult to juggle whilst also trying to be at home for a young child, drop a child off at day care or have that quality time as well.”

Law Society statistics show that just 23 per cent of women in the legal industry become equity partners. This is a significant figure when women make up 57 per cent of employed lawyers.

“There were a group of five of us [studying law] and I’m the only one left working in the industry,” Ms Griffiths said.

“They all changed their opinion on what they wanted, and with their work-life balance said they won’t get that working for a law firm. Others don’t want to work for a private company. They want to work for the government where they get paid maternity leave and have those other allowances to have the work-life balance while bringing up their child.”

Career risks of taking time off

For female lawyers who do choose to take time off for maternity leave there are significant concerns about where it will leave them when they want to return to work.

“Particularly in the legal industry or any other professional industry, it takes you a long time to get to a level where you feel secure in your employment,” Ms Griffiths said.

“You’re a professional, you’ve set up your career and people refer clients to you. To take 12 months full-time off you feel uncomfortable and worry about whether you’ll have a step backwards or if your role will still be there when you come back.”

Ms Griffiths is grateful she had an understanding employer when she had her son 15 years ago. She proposed she work part-time for six months and then increase her hours slowly.

“I know a lot of my colleagues haven’t been able to have that and it’s very sad to have to rely on family or day care in the first year so you can spend time with your children and try and work at the same time.”

“Even when you are working part-time you know your phone will be ringing, and if the office rings with a difficult client who won’t talk to anyone else you have to be able to take that call. As a professional that’s what you need to do.”

Changing attitudes and a fair environment

Having practised law for 20 years, Melinda Griffiths remembers the days of sexism in the workplace.

As a young woman she applied for a law clerk position in a firm she was working in and was told it was not a position for a female.

“I promptly resigned the next week and luckily every other place I’ve worked for has been very proactive and constructive in the way they deal with their female staff,” she said.

“I’ve been very lucky, but I know some of the attitudes are still old fashioned and that’s hard to overcome and change. That takes time.”

She said businesses need to offer more flexible working conditions for women taking maternity leave and understand that working from home can also bring great benefits.

“I know if I work from home I get more done than when I’m in the office because you don’t have any interruptions,” she said.

“I also know from experience that if you’re given the opportunity to work from home it’s a privilege, so you work harder to maintain that privilege. If companies can see they’re getting more out of their employees by giving them those advantages, it works for everyone.”

This article was originally published by the ABC.


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