Australia: Diverse and inclusive organisations: It is no tempest in a teapot, it is a serious business issue

It is 112 years since the first woman in Australia was admitted to practice law. We would have hoped that attaining gender equality within Australian law firms would have been settled in the intervening century and bit between Flos Grieg donning her robes in Melbourne in 1905 and the acceptance by the courts of e-signatures. But attracting, retaining and promoting high-quality female talent within the legal profession continues to be a vexed issue, and this affects our firm as it does others across the profession.

I was admitted to practice in 1984, and, like many in my generation, I firmly believed that I was being recruited into an identity-blind meritocracy. I understood that there were clear economic and educational challenges for many entering the profession, and that you had to network hard to get ahead. But I didn't see, or feel, any overt discrimination. My cohort of young lawyers worked hard, and played pretty hard as well; just like I see our young lawyers doing today.

What I did witness was an apparent irreconcilable tension between being a law firm partner and having caring responsibilities. Early in my career, I worked in the team of a female partner who tried to juggle part-time work with two children. The example was far from inspirational. Back then, it was near-on impossible to bend the rigid expectations of partnership and all too often women who had children chose just to opt out. Unfortunately, many never opted back into private practice.

That was the message I received, loud and clear, when I decided to have children. I don't recall maternity leave being available, encouraged or spoken about. There was no issue in my mind, and I resigned.

But I was also determined not to lose contact with that world I was leaving, and exchanged the silver teapot that was my leaving present for an answering machine-the conduit through which I maintained relationships and stayed connected with the law in the pre-internet era. These relationships with my colleagues allowed me to continue to build and shape my legal career.

As my professional career developed and I was promoted through to partnership, there were increasingly fewer women at the table. The women were, quite simply, disappearing. Looking upstairs, leadership across the profession looked very monotone. It was a decade ago that I had my lightbulb moment on diversity and inclusion. I was invited to speak at an AFR conference titled "Women in Law Confronting the Future". Preparing for that I articulated the must have "success" criteria required in order to change the outcomes and promotion of female lawyers; networking, mentoring and flexible work practices were key. Following this Sparke Helmore created the Six Degrees network to encourage and support Sparke Helmore's community of women by providing opportunities to help them grow professionally and personally through networking, leadership, mentoring and collaboration.

As a result, we have a strong history of employing and promoting women at our firm and have formal and informal mechanisms to support more diverse leadership.

Sparke Helmore launched our new Diversity and Inclusion Strategy 2020 in September. It is anchored in our vision to be a market leading Australian professional services business that our clients choose for outstanding people, legal expertise and our ability to connect.

Our new strategy takes a multi-layered approach to diversity, acknowledging the broad range of identities and perspectives that our partners and employees bring to our firm, and employs best practice in how to ensure that we are encouraging the articulation of different views and including these in our decision-making processes.

We're persuaded by the evidence that diverse and inclusive organisations are more innovative, achieve better financial results, have better governance and risk management. Like many among you, I've seen this in practice; in working with clients to create innovative solutions to their legal risks, in developing new service capacities that make our firm more agile and in harnessing the network opportunities, such as through Six Degrees. We have expanded the scope of our firm's strategy to encompass five areas of diversity and inclusion, each with clear goals and targets, supported by resources and championed by our partners and leaders:

  • Gender: We are focused on attracting, developing and retaining top female talent and increasing gender representation in senior leadership roles.
  • Flexibility: We want to attain flexibility "when, where and how" we work. This is about being more effective and efficient, whilst managing roles and responsibilities in and out of the workplace.
  • Access/Ability: We will work to provide access and opportunities for people with illness, injury or disability. We are responding also to tackle issues of mental illness in the legal profession.
  • LGBTIQ+: We are creating a workplace culture where all people feel that they can be open about their sexual orientation without fear of discrimination.
  • Culture and Identity: We aim to build awareness and understanding of different cultures and identities across the firm, our clients and within the communities where we do business.

Our aim is for Sparke Helmore to be a sustainable business with an inclusive culture where everyone can flourish and deliver their best to clients. Quite simply, a place where everyone can bring their whole selves to work.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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