Judith is currently a Solicitor at the Victorian Government Solicitor’s Office. As someone who has worked in roles spanning policy and law, she has enjoyed having the chance to merge these passions. Prior to this, Judith worked in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet as a Policy Adviser and also at Gadens as a lawyer. Throughout her career, Judith has always advocated for diversity and women’s rights. Today she reflects on her career journey and the importance of representation in the workforce and specifically law and politics.
You’ve had a lot of experience in both law and politics seeing as you worked in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and working as a lawyer at Gadens. How did these very different experiences of yours merge into your role at the Victorian Government Solicitor’s Office?
I think many people would perceive policy and law to be two very separate worlds, requiring two very separate sets of skills. Law is seen as a far more technical profession, and policy as much more of a generalist skill. However, I think that there’s a lot of overlap in the skills that you need for both professions. This is especially relevant when speaking about the soft skills required for both, which I found transferable in my experience. Even though the type of work you’re doing is different, things like good communication, effective collaboration, teamwork, and time management are skills that are essential in any professional job whether that is policy or law and in the corporate or government sector. So, for me, even though I’ve moved around between these two different industries, I’ve been able to pivot and bring the skills that I gained from policy into the legal world and vice versa.
According to Lawyers Weekly, female grads in law firms currently outnumber their male counterparts 2-to-1. Has this representation been reflected in your experiences in the industry?
I see many talented young female graduates entering the field, and it does seem that women are outnumbering men in junior positions in firms. In this respect, I think both the corporate and government sectors are improving and are taking significant strides to help address the issue of gender diversity and equal representation. However, across both the legal and policy sectors, we are still seeing a drop off in the number of women in senior positions with many executive positions being dominated by men. I think the problem of representation is twofold. It’s not just a matter of getting women to enter the profession in the first place, but it's also enticing women to stay. From my perspective, this is not because we are consciously stopping women from getting into management positions. Rather, we need to increase accessibility and flexibility of these roles to improve people's longevity in the profession.
I’d also like to add that real diversity goes deeper than just having equal representation of women and men. It's also really important that we increase diversity in a broader sense. The legal profession can do better in increasing diversity more generally by ensuring that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, LGBTQI+, culturally and linguistically diverse people, and people with disabilities enter and stay in the profession.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about what it means to be a good leader as a woman?
A big misconception is that to be successful, female leaders have to emulate the character traits traditionally associated with male leaders. An example is that many people view showing emotion and getting passionate about a topic in the workplace in a negative light. However, I think it’s often really inspiring for employees to know that their boss cares. Some of the most inspiring leaders in my career have been women who haven't tried to embody that mould of the “effective male leader”.
During my time at the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, I worked in economic policy which is typically quite male-dominated. There were however a few women working in that area who I got to watch as they navigated the space, expressed their opinions as needed, and didn’t let the fact that they were often the only female in the room, affect them. I especially appreciated that they would promote the careers of both junior and senior women around them, so I felt really supported. Regardless of what I had going on, I always felt that they were there to talk to and to gain advice from.
Self-doubt is common among women in politics and law. Is this something you have ever experienced?
I had a humanities background, so I was quite terrified when I began working in economic policy because I worked with many highly skilled economists who had benefited from formal academic training in the area. Often, I’d feel worried that my opinion was invalid or that I’d say something incorrect and embarrass myself. It took me quite some time to overcome this and learn to express my opinion, which is essential when you’re in an advisory position. I think I overcame that fear through the support of both male and female bosses in the workplace, who helped me understand my inherent value. One thing a boss said that particularly resonated with me was that bringing a different perspective was actually one of the reasons I was recruited for that position. A lot of professions do get that echo chamber of people with similar backgrounds and experience. Learning that my unique academic background was my selling point helped me learn to participate and overcome this worry.
What would be your advice to young women seeking to overcome gendered prejudice or stereotypes at work?
Unfortunately, most women will have felt some form of prejudice or discrimination at some point in their career. The tricky thing is that, in 2021, much of this is not necessarily explicit or constitutes unconscious bias. This can make it really difficult to recognise or call out, and makes many women feel like their experience of bias is not valid. One of the most common indicators of discrimination or bias in in the workplace is as simple as constantly being spoken over in meetings. Many women suffer from this, and consequently, they start to doubt the validity of their opinion This can lead to all sorts of self-doubt because they’ll begin to believe that someone else in the room knows more than them on the topic, or that they’re not senior or important enough to express their opinion.
Another thing we consistently see in Australian workplaces is the assumption that women will assume what are termed 'non-promotable' tasks. These are typically administrative tasks that are essential to a workplace but do not contribute to a person's progression in their role. These can be essential yet 'low profile' work tasks but also include things like organising team morning teas, birthday cards or even stacking the communal dishwasher. While it can be difficult to explicitly point to this as 'discrimination', our male counterparts can use this time to complete more high-profile tasks which in turn allow them to progress faster.
While I don’t have a solution to fixing these biases, my one piece of advice is to speak up, express your opinions, and believe in yourself. Always remember that your opinion is valid, and while you might not always be the expert in the room, you’re there for a reason. If you have something to say, it’s probably valid, and it’s probably interesting. You won’t ever lose anything by contributing, but you have a lot to gain.
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