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Invest in women: Accelerate progress

A review of the LSS’s annual ‘Women in Law breakfast’.


By Aisha Collins



The ANU Law Students Society’s (LSS) annual Women in Law (WIL) breakfast was held on the 21st of March 2024 at the QT hotel.


Not to be confused with Women In Law ANU’s [1] International Women’s Day Breakfast, the LSS’s ‘Women in Law Breakfast’ is held annually by the LSS’s Social Justice portfolio, with Clifford Chance being the breakfasts’ long-time sponsor. The event is, in part, inspired by International Women’s Day (IWD), which takes place on the 5th of March every year. 


This year, there were two themes for the day. The first, being the official IWD campaign’s slogan, was #InspireInclusion. The second was the UN’s observed theme: ‘Invest in women: Accelerate progress’. The dissonance between these two themes is, I feel, quite apt to represent the different ways in which IWD is celebrated.


Respectfully, the theme ‘#InspireInclusion’ makes my eyes roll; a hollow attempt at pretending a day intended to empower women isn’t just another marketing strategy. To boot, this hashtag is supposed to be shared by people on social media with a photo of themselves configuring their fingers to form a heart shape – Look how easy it is to support women! No further action required! – It's catchy and palatable, with no ambition to gauge tangible outcomes.


Invest in women: Accelerate progress’, however, tells me the UN wants us all to put our money where our mouth is. ‘Accelerate progress’ in particular drives home how empowering women is for the benefit of everyone in society. It acknowledges the power of women, when supported and uplifted, to elevate entire communities with them. 


For this year’s WIL Breakfast, $10 from every $12 ticket purchased for the event was donated to the ACT Women’s Legal Centre to support “gender-responsive financing”. This financing intends to enable women to access the support they need and deserve to navigate legal issues. A good sign, I thought, that this event aligns with the UN’s ideas of what really empowers women: financial backing, as opposed to a hashtag. 


With this in mind, I rocked up to this year’s WIL breakfast keen to get behind a good cause, but with a healthy amount of scepticism. It's become hard for me to ignore feelings of hesitancy whenever I see any sort of IWD or Womens+ empowerment event marketed alongside the logo of a corporate sponsor. Especially when the event is paired with something a little bit cutesy like “networking event” or “brunch” (both of which were tactfully underplayed in the LSS’s advertising materials for this event, to my relief). 


It’s not that I was expecting the event to be uninspiring, or poorly executed – the LSS puts considerable effort in to these events, and I trust it is from a place of sincerity – but I will say that I’ve been to quite a few events and panels claiming to champion Women in Law over the years, and a lot of the time I leave feeling a bit deflated. Networking is not my thing. Girlbossing is not my thing. And I do feel that there is often a palpable disconnect between the women in attendance: often middle-to-upper class, often able bodied, and often white (with myself included here), and the women who’s empowerment is most frequently ignored: women from low socio-economic backgrounds, women with disabilities, and women of colour. 


Justice Louise Taylor, this year's keynote speaker, opened her speech echoing that exact sentiment. In her own words, Justice Taylor expressed that she has “largely avoided anything to do with [International Women’s Day] in recent years” due to this dissonance between who is championed and who is ignored. 


Justice Taylor is a Kamilaroi woman, the ACT’s first Aboriginal judicial officer, and the first Indigenous woman to become a Supreme Court Judge in Australia. She is an ANU College of Law alumna, with a background in criminal law specialising in family violence that has my utmost personal admiration. I was stoked at the opportunity to hear her speak, and decided when I saw her name attached to the event’s advertising materials that I absolutely wanted to be in attendance, my feelings about IWD aside. 


Expanding on why she usually turns down opportunities to speak at “these types of events”, Justice Taylor articulated an awareness of how the waters remain “largely untested” for an Indigenous Woman with her career trajectory, which has compounded a feeling of needing to be “especially careful” with her word selection and presentation. These disclaimers at the start of her speech were accompanied by addressing another elephant in the room: a general malaise with the corporatisation and ‘feminist cheerleading’ that surrounds and stifles any actual progress made on International Women’s Day.




Pictured: Clifford chance and ANU LSS banners (left), Justice Louise Taylor speaking at the WIL Breakfast (right)



I sat with my cup of coffee and cute little mini pastries listening to Justice Taylor’s speech and got to wondering; how many other attendees – like myself, the housemate I'd dragged along to the breakfast with me, and supposedly Justice Taylor herself – showed up to this event sceptical, but hoping to be pleasantly surprised? What does it mean to show up to something you kind of expect to be disappointing, but to still go and hope for the best? What was it that had made me feel slightly uneasy about the event to begin with, when I had every reason to trust the care and passion of the organisers?


I was left meditating on these thoughts throughout the rest of the breakfast, but have since decided that this line of thinking is quite analogous to the way in which people interested in pursuing social justice related legal careers show up to meet the law. 


The last question in Justice Taylor’s Q & A session came from an attendee who asked for Her Honours’ advice. The attendee prefaced their question by acknowledging that, as the law continues to be unkind to minorities, the attitudes starting at the bottom are of the utmost importance. With this in mind, Justice Taylor was asked: how can we, as law students, do better? How do we continue to show up with a desire to bring about change when continually faced with discrimination and injustice?


Her Honour considered how to respond, before sharing with us the words of Professor Megan Davis, who Her Honour described as having, at times, held a “glass half full” to her own learned scepticism. For all the pain and suffering the law can bring; the infliction and compounding of trauma and distress, the lack of accountability for some but devastatingly punitive measures for others, Professor Davis says “we can’t forget the power of the law to redeem.” The power of the law to inspire. The power of the law to uplift.


“You stay in the law” despite coming face to face with such injustices, Her Honour concluded, “because you have to believe it is capable of change”. 

When I later asked about the levels of engagement these types of events receive, Mia Booth, The LSS’s Vice-President of Social Justice, mentioned that events tackling gender inequality often experience high levels of engagement, relative to other LSS events. According to Booth, this is “likely due to there being a high proportion of women’s+ law students at ANU and ANU students being passionate about social justice”.


We know that since 1993, there have been more women graduating with law degrees each year than men, and that as of 2023, 55% of Australian solicitors identify as women. We also know that while we only make up between 25-30% of Bar Associations across Australia, women account for 70% of solicitors in the community law sector. The links here make themselves obvious. 


Clifford Chance partner Elizabeth Richmond, who alongside Clifford Chance law graduate Yasmin Box also presented a speech and Q & A session, touched further on the sustained “thinning up the pyramid” of women in commercial and private law firms when it comes to positions of power. While gender parity for leadership and seniority in the legal profession remains elusive, there has of course been undeniable progress made in recent years.


Justice Taylor also discussed this supposed ‘new era of change’ for women in law, and women in general across the nation. Without denying that having more women holding positions of power is a marker of a progressive society, she reminded us to keep asking: Who is being lifted up here? Who is being left behind? 


To give more context to the statistics mentioned above is to see a much bigger picture. In 2020 there were only 309 female solicitors in Australia* who identified as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander. That's 309 out of 44,581, or 0.7% in comparison to the 3.8% of the national female population who are Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander. Who is being lifted up here? Who is being left behind? 


A weariness and understanding of how IWD events are often co-opted to satisfy tick-box corporate inclusivity quotas, while at the same time ignoring the perspectives of women further marginalised by their race, class, sexuality or disability was, I realised, on everyone’s mind throughout breakfast. If it hadn’t been before Justice Taylor’s speech, it certainly was during and after. To the credit of Booth and her two Social Justice Directors, Venni Baliyan and Hannah Benhassine, who helped organise the event, I also realised that this had likely been preempted. 


In her introductory speech, Booth prefaced the event with an acknowledgement that “colonial law has been used as a tool to oppress Indigenous Australians, including Indigenous women,” and that it’s important to use events like the WIL breakfast to “reflect on access to justice for all women, and all people”. There was more depth and sincerity to Booth’s Acknowledgment of Country than there is to be found in the official IWD Campaign’s entire theme of  ‘#InspireInclusion’. 


Over the course of the breakfast, the crowd at my table had gradually dispersed as people were unable to stay the whole time, needing to get to class or work. After the speeches, when the eggs benny and smashed avo came out as a godsend for my rumbling tummy, I found myself in discussion with two Juris Doctor students. They were women I'd never met before, but with whom I engaged in one of the most engrossing and passionate conversations I’d had in quite some time. We spoke about typical things: studying law and why we were motivated to do so, moving to Canberra, our families, our travels and ambitions, but there was so much joy there, coupled with genuine connection and mutual understanding.


When I asked Booth why she thinks events like the WIL breakfast are worth investing in, she said that the pay off came from “attracting some of the most dedicated and passionate students in one room, and providing them with the opportunity to learn more about […] using the law for good”. I, for one, was reminded just how special this sense of community and hope is. Recalling the words of Professor Davis, as quoted by Justice Taylor, if sustaining the belief that the law is capable of changing for the better is needed to pursue such change, then it couldn’t hurt to keep coming to these types of events every once in a while. 


You can be critical of institutions that perpetuate discrimination and injustice, while still finding solace and inspiration in the people working within them trying to bring about change. In this same vein, I suppose I can remain critical about International Women’s Day, and events attempting to empower women over coffee and snacks, while still appreciating the intention and necessity behind them.


At the end of the day, for every hollow, corporatised IWD event out there, I shouldn't forget the power of these forums to inspire and uplift, when executed in a way that prioritises intersectionality and nuance. I give my kudos to the LSS Social Justice team for managing to pull off an event that does just that.



 

Endnotes:

[1]  Women in Law ANU, or WILA, is a student-run body which aims to equip and embolden female-identifying law students at the ANU. It is not affiliated with the LSS. You can find more about WILA, and the work they do, here: https://www.facebook.com/womeninlaw.anu 

[2] Excluding Victoria, where no gender data was provided. see: Law Society’s Annual Profile 



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