Lifting the Gendered Veil

HousewifeThe dresses are longer, the speeches lighter, the liquor overflowing. The annual end of year law society dinner gives law students the opportunity to blow off steam as they hit the books one last time before the summer break. Those that attend this function understand the need to get together and socialise before taking the great leap into that mind-numbing, seemingly unending vortex we know as SWOTVAC.

I was looking forward to a night of fine dining and not so fine dancing with my friends, when I happened to cross paths with one of the event organisers during the night. The student, a member on the law student society who I did not know personally, handed me a place card that he claimed he had made especially for me.  How charming, I thought. ‘Joke’ place cards are a tradition at law dinners – the punch line being that the inscription is intended to describe the person to whom it is given. The place card I was handed read: Housewife.  Initially I thought it was funny, even though it had come from someone who I did not know. But what exactly was I laughing at? Was it the irony of being an outspoken feminist in a conservative law school and being recognised for this? If so, what exactly was so funny about having the title of “Housewife”? And why did I find it so funny?

The place card sits uncomfortably on a grey line, which divides a joke between an oh-so-ironic post-feminist way of thinking and the reality of discrimination and systematic disadvantage female law students have to face at university and in the legal profession.

As ironic and harmless as they may seem, ‘wife jokes’ undermine the domestic, unpaid and undervalued work of stay at home mothers, wives and partners. Instead of challenging an out dated belief which good humour can do, it reaffirms a view that women in the private domestic sphere are less powerful than those women and men occupying public spaces. Wife jokes are seen as justified when targeted at women whose ambitions lie in the professional sphere. Sadly, all these jokes do is perpetuate the stereotype that working women are more accomplished and respected in society than a woman who willingly chooses to be a housewife. This kind of remark takes the success of some women and twists it into a tawdry jibe at the expense of other women, whose work and way of life is no less valid or insignificant as others. It demeans both the source of the jest and the subject, all at once. Wife jokes also perniciously attempt to put women into boxes, snubbing the option that women have in the course of their life to interchangeably weave in and out of career and family commitments.

Wonder Woman Hammer

The ‘joke’ place card might not have exhibited explicit sexism, but it did reflect the subtle and insidious sexism that prevails in law school and the legal profession. The gendering of the legal profession takes many forms.  Even though more than 50 per cent of law graduates are female, women are still struggling to reach parity in senior positions. Some employers in the profession are wary of promoting young females because of the perceived risk that women are more likely to leave to have children and become, you guessed it, a “housewife”, even though they may return at a future date. Unequal pay still persists in Australia, despite a series of campaigns, Fair Work Australia decisions, and the introduction of sex discrimination legislation. A male law graduate can expect to earn $55,000, but his female equivalent is looking at $4,300 less, or $50,700.[1] The current national gender pay gap sits at 17.5 per cent which equates to the average full-time woman earning $266.20 less each week than the average full-time  working man, resulting in an annual difference of $13,842.40. [2] This pay difference can have a significant impact on individuals such as single working mothers who are required to make ends meet with dependent children.  I do not mean to limit my criticism to the legal profession, but to point out that the legal profession operates with the same prejudices as the rest of society.

Law school often contributes to the gendering of the legal profession.  Law students very early on learn to distinguish between serious ‘Hard Law’ and bludgey ‘Soft Law’ subjects. Black letter, private law subjects are elevated in the Priestly 11 curriculum, where the wise male voice is often seen as the authoritative norm. Subjects such as feminist jurisprudence and family law are seen as less competitive options. Topics on sexual assault and rape in university criminal law lectures and tutorials are often treated with a lack of sensitivity, even though 2 in 3 female university students are reported to have experienced sexual harassment while on campus. [3] These attitudes observed in the classroom filter down to the student body. They are reflected in the making of event posters that objectify women, male only sports teams and an entrenched ‘boys club’ mentality that can marginalise and even deter female law students from participating in their law school experience.

JudgeJudy-animationWhich brings me back to the place card. I did find it somewhat funny on an ironic blasé level, even though I hardly knew the person who created it.  But, I am aware that comedy is often a stinging reflection of the state of affairs in which we exist, and the context of this card was at a law school dinner, with current and future lawyers, judges and legislators in attendance. What may seem like a harmless, tongue in cheek joke, actually fails to acknowledge the reality that female law students face in their daily lives and will have to continue to face in their future careers. As future law makers and advocates, it is incumbent upon us to create the kind of society we wish to inherit. Young educated men have an important role to play in ending gender disparity in our homes, universities and workplaces.  If we are not vigilant against the explicit and subtle inequalities that prevail around us, how are we going to better serve justice as young lawyers?

By Anonymous

[1] Workplace Gender Equality Agency’s (WGEA) 2012 Grad Stats

[2] Calculated using average weekly full time, ordinary time earnings data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, released on 15  August 2013 (Cat. No. 6302.0)

[3] National Union of Student’s Safety on Campus 2010 report which surveyed 1500 female university students, 86%  of respondents had experienced sexual harassment while on campus, whereas  67% of respondents had experienced an unwanted sexual experience, many if not more of these were examples of what would be legally described as sexual violence or rape.