Change Makers Podcast Episode 5: A Push for Gender Equality at the Bar

Jane Needham SC and Kate Eastman SC join Catherine Roberts, Change Makers Podcast Host and Global Strategic Client Director at Thomson Reuters Legal, Asia and Emerging Markets, for episode five, A Push for Gender Equality at the Bar. The program focuses on the conditions experienced among women at the Bar and how the legal profession can do better.

Catherine interviews Kate and Jane on a range of topics, from flexibility in the workplace and childcare considerations for Barrister parents – a concept that Jane copped flack for introducing to chambers as the former President of the Australian, New South Wales Bar Association some years ago – to bullying and harassment and the future generation of barristers.

Both successful Australian based Barristers have earned their stripes in the profession with decades of experience and legal accolades tied to their names. Jane was previously President of the NSW Bar Association and her legal expertise has a focus on Equity and Succession Law and has appeared in significant Inquiries and Inquests. They include the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety.

Kate’s areas of practice are Employment, Discrimination, and Human Rights. She has been recognised throughout her career with awards including the Women Lawyers’ Association “Change Champion of the Year Award”. Both Barristers have been actively vocal on gender equality and Equitable Briefing and pushed for change on various fronts.

Podcast show notes

When Jane Needham SC became a Barrister some four decades ago, her gender cut a lonely figure at the Bar. Being the only woman in the room was her day to day experience in the profession – whether it was courtroom conference or her legal clients – her colleagues were mostly all men. 

While the numbers are slightly better than they used to be, the award winning Barrister, who is renowned for striving to make the Bar a better place to work, believes the Bar ought to start looking at appointing more female practitioners into leadership roles rather than just making up gender diverse numbers.

“I do think that women in leadership is a real challenge for women at the Bar, because there are so few female silks (we have around ten percent of silks who are women). There aren’t that many role models, because there just aren’t many of us, with one or two [male] appointments and we go under the ten percent again,” she said on the Change Makers Podcast.

For a young woman whose career ambition is to become a sole practitioner or Barrister, it can be difficult to find a role model. To this, Jane encourages women lawyers to look to the historical achievements of those in the profession who have pushed for progress historically.

“It’s really important to look to the people who’ve done the work, who’ve done the hard yards and really fought against much more apparent barriers than we have. I’m thinking of people like the late Jane Matthews [and] Ruth McColl, who has recently retired. They’re leaders who’ve really made a difference and who’ve put themselves out there and have achieved, and I think we need to look at that as well as develop the younger women who are coming through.”

Pictured from left: Jane Needham SC, Catherine Roberts, Global Strategic Client Director, Thomson Reuters Legal, Asia and Emerging Markets and Kate Eastman SC.

Kate Eastman SC agrees with Jane, citing that there’s so few women as Senior Counsel even today.

“We might make up 10% of all Senior Counsel, but we’re actually 1.2% of the entire Bar,” she said.

On becoming more vocal

Unlike her colleague Jane, Kate’s experience of entering the profession did not involve being the only woman in the room. However, over time she realised how far the profession needed to adapt for Barristers with dependents.

“When I first came to the Bar, I didn’t have children and I wasn’t married. So I was literally footloose and fancy free. All I had to really be worried about was just getting myself organised. I’ve had to evolve both in terms of a wife, as a mother, as a practitioner, as a leader, to try to fit more in, with less time. And that’s a real challenge,” added Kate.

“Part of it is to have that flexibility and to have that resilience and to recognise the limitations in yourself so that you can…handle all of the responsibilities that you have.”

Catherine asked Kate and Jane how vocal they have become over the years on pushing for equality for women in the legal profession, further querying whether they have become more vocal on the issue over time.

To this, Jane pointed out the burden of responsibility she felt as the the third female President of the Bar Association, but the first with children. With 18 months in that role, she did not waste time.

“I knew that I had to use that 18 months to make a difference because I would have, once I left, I would need to leave whatever I’d achieved in the hands of all the men who were going to roll out after me. And that’s not a slam on the guys themselves. It’s just a fact that people have different priorities and my priorities were flexible working, equitable briefing, just making the bar a better place to work,” explained Jane.

Kate seems to think she has always been vocal about fairness and equality for women in the workplace, but that perhaps her voice is listened to more with her increased seniority.

“I think if you asked other people, including my family and my friends at university, they would say I’ve always been vocal about these issues. It may the difference may be that there’s more people who listen to me now or have to listen to me than when I was younger,” she replied.

Kate reflects fondly on her time working as a research assistant at the Human Rights Commission, with the then Human Rights Commissioner Quentin Bryce. Her job was to work on a sexual harassment campaign with a focus on young women, often working in blue collar work or retail, who experienced sexual harassment.

“There was this moment where [I felt] I cannot believe this is happening. It sort of clicked to me that this is why I wanted to be a lawyer…And if I was going to take on human rights work, then I had to be prepared to be vocal about it.”

“I feel a responsibility as a leader that if I see issues around gender equality issues, in our own profession as lawyers, and we can’t fix that or act in accordance with the law, then how can we expect anybody else in the community to do so?”

– Kate Eastman SC

The “fierce” generation of women Barristers

Both Barristers see the future for women in the legal profession optimistically. While the environment at the Bar may have a bit of catching up to do compared to the rest of the legal profession, women lawyers, it seems, are finally being listened to.

“I hope that the skills that they have as young women will carry forward into the profession where they won’t sit back and tolerate poor working conditions, disrespect discourtesy, that they will call these things out in a way that they are better equipped to do than perhaps we were. My generation felt that we had to prove ourselves to be accepted. Yet these young women just say we’re here, we should be accepted and we’re fierce,” said Kate.

Jane argues there is so much to be done, though change for the better seems like the inevitable.

“We’re working in a system which was designed by men for men hundreds of years ago. And the concept of flexible work around family responsibilities is probably something that’s developed in the last couple of decades. We really need to work out whether the way in which the courts work is fit for purpose in today’s society,” Jane added.

Play Change Makers Podcast Episode 5: A Push for Gender Equality at the Bar to hear the full conversation between the inspiring women Barristers looking to make the Bar a better place to work.

Did you know, Catherine interviewed another Barrister at the start of the series, Larissa Andelman, Barrister and President of the New South Wales Women Lawyers Association? Enjoy another powerful conversation in Change Makers Podcast Episode 1: Elevating Gender Diversity in Legal Leadership.

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