What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Profession Like This?
A study by the Law Council of Australia (Leanne Mezrani, Lawyers Weekly, 14 March 2014) has found women in law face significant levels of discrimination. Fiona McLeod described law as a profession that still caters to men: ‘Our problem is not with women, they are just the canaries in the coal mine; our problem is with the profession and the fact that we’re still operating basically as a men’s only club where some women get let in on a case-by-case basis.’
McLeod, a key figure in the development of the National Attrition and Re-engagement Study (‘NARS’), called it a ‘watershed moment’ for the legal profession. The online survey gathered data from 3801 practising lawyers, 84 who had left the profession and 75 who had completed a law qualification but had not practised law. 82 of the respondents also participated in in-depth interviews. Just over 70 per cent of the practising lawyers who completed the survey were women. The majority of respondents (64 per cent) were aged between 25 and 34.
The 150-page NARS report includes disturbing statistics on the rate of discrimination, bullying and harassment in the legal profession. Half of all women said they had experienced discrimination because of their gender, compared with just over 10 per cent of men. One in four women said they were discriminated against because of family or carer responsibilities. Many also reported receiving unwanted advances, feeling objectified or being exposed to inappropriate sexual behaviour.
‘Overt examples of gender discrimination ranged from being allocated different types of work, to being rejected or judged as less competent by clients and colleagues. Subtler forms of discrimination were also reported, including demeaning and condescending language by clients and colleagues and exclusion from conversation or social activities’.
The first three people ever charged with female genital mutilation in Australia have been committed to stand trial in Sydney. (Emma Partridge, Sydney Morning Herald, 23 May 2014.) A mother, a retired nurse and a sheikh have been accused of circumcising two girls, aged six and seven, at a Sydney home in 2012. Sex crimes police allege the procedures were performed for cultural reasons. Nine people were originally charged with their involvement in the alleged mutilation, including the girl’s father, a Sydney doctor, whose charges were later dropped. Auburn Sheikh Shabbir Vaziri, 56, had his bail continued after he was committed to stand trial on two counts of being an accessory after the fact to female genital mutilation and with hindering the police investigation.
Harsh Drug Laws Tennessee Style
In Tennessee a bill has been passed that is the first law in the country to authorise the arrest and incarceration of women who use drugs while pregnant. Reproductive and civil rights advocates had opposed the law which comes into force on 1 July 2014 and the Governor has undertaken to monitor its impact. A woman could be prosecuted for assault if she takes a narcotic drug while pregnant and the baby is born addicted, harmed or dies because of the drug. The woman can avoid criminal charges if she completes a state treatment program.
Advocates for pregnant women fear the law will stop women seeking prenatal care and addiction treatment, and does nothing to help low-income mothers who may not be able to take time away from their families and jobs to seek treatment. While the Tennessee bill is the first to criminalise drug use among pregnant women with poor pregnancy outcomes, other states have been prosecuting pregnant women for years. Alabama’s Supreme Court ruled earlier this month that women can be prosecuted under the state’s chemical endangerment law if they use drugs while pregnant.
Women and Girls as Chattels
Reuters has reported that, on International Women’s Day 2014, a dozen brave Iraqi women demonstrated in Baghdad against a draft law approved by the Iraqi cabinet that, if passed, would permit the marriage of nine-year-old girls and automatically give child custody to fathers. The draft law would also condone a husband’s right to insist on sexual intercourse with his wife whenever he wishes.
MADGE E STRAIT is a feminist lawyer.