As delegates gathered for the IBA’s Annual Conference in Sydney in October, revelations regarding film producer Harvey Weinstein were just emerging. Throughout the week, the shocking scale of the problem became apparent as stories poured in from women around the world in many, if not all, professions. The hashtag ‘MeToo’ became a rallying cry against sexual assault, harassment and power imbalances.
It was against this backdrop that one of the showcase sessions in Sydney assembled some of the foremost women in Australia’s legal profession and government. Edited extracts of the fascinating discussion can be found on pages 22 to 26 (see ‘Women leaders call for change’). Film of the session – as part of the IBA’s extensive coverage of the week in Sydney – can be viewed online at ibanet.org.
Among the most striking aspects of the Weinstein revelations has been the length of time such extreme behaviour has avoided both the public gaze and sanction. Fiona McLeod, Senior Counsel and President of the Law Council of Australia, pointed out that: ‘The fear for people as soon as they become a complainant is that it then becomes about them, and their own behaviour is scrutinised or they are blamed for what’s happened. So I understand people’s reluctance to bring complaints.’
Meanwhile, Dame Quentin Bryce, Australia’s 25th Governor General – the first woman appointed to that position – asked rhetorically: ‘Why don’t we use the word “prejudice”? There are endless explanations for unequal pay and blatant discrimination’. She suggested that, rather than achieving progress, things are going backwards – the number of women moving into senior leadership roles is decreasing.
There is much work to be done. The publication of the IBA’s Legal Policy and Research Unit report Women In Commercial Legal Practice – the product of extensive research, including a wide-ranging survey – could not be more timely. It gives a comprehensive picture of the situation of women in commercial legal practice and describes the reasons why women continue to experience barriers. Anti-discrimination laws and policies have not done enough. The hope is for a concerted move towards creating more conducive environments for women in law firms. It’s long overdue.
This special edition of Global Insight also presents other highlights from the week in Sydney, including interviews with various outstanding speakers on major issues, from world trade to environmental protection, and the continuing rise of China.