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Kiefel appointment is refreshing, but greater diversity is an ongoing task

The appointment of Susan Kiefel as the first woman to be Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia in its 113 years is a significant milestone for Australia society. While an inordinately long time coming, it is another important recognition and reflection of women lawyers' important role in Australian civic life.

Women doctors made progress earlier into conventionally male professions as their intrusion was more likely to be viewed as an extension of their roles in the 'private sphere', as Canadian academic Mary Jane Mossman notes.

It took audacious table-turning for women lawyers to break through as they were clearly 'intruding on the public domain explicitly reserved to men'. Without earlier trailblazers we wouldn't be marking Justice Kiefel's achievement.

Her path to the position is reflective of the varied ways in which women have come to practice law in Australia, and the myriad life experiences they bring to their roles. We all owe so much to the first women to practise law in each state, at different times in different states, varying from 1902 through until as late as 1923. These include Ada Evans in NSW, Flos Greig in Victoria, Agnes McWhinney in Queensland, Nancy McPhee in Tasmania, and Mary Kitson (later Tenison-Woods) in South Australia.

Mary Kitson was expected to resign from her job on her marriage, so she formed what may have been the first female legal practice in Australia (with Dorothy Somerville) in 1925. Edith Haynes, in Western Australia, had a less successful experience than her counterparts.

On August 9, 1904, the Full Court of the Supreme Court of Western Australia decided the word "person" in the Legal Practitioners Act 1893 did not include a female and Edith Haynes was not allowed to become a lawyer. The law was not changed until 1923 when Edith Cowan, the first woman elected to an Australian parliament, introduced a private member's bill, which became the Women's Legal Status Act 1923.

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Despite these 'intrusions' in the first 50  years of the 20th century and even with this important appointment of Justice Kiefel as Chief Justice this week, Australia is far from achieving an equality of women's participation in the legal world and is still working towards full citizenship for women in the civic sphere.

Within the Australian court system, women judges make up only 35 per cent of the total bench. In the commercial sectors too, women remain grouped at the lower-paid, lower-status end of the legal profession, despite women law students now entering universities in greater proportions than men.

The National Attrition and Re-engagement Study Report released by the Law Council of Australia in March 2014 confirmed that during 2013-14 women solicitors comprised 61 per cent of all solicitors admitted in that year. However, the Report found a wide gap between the large number of women who enter the legal profession and the smaller number who remain some years later. So there is still a long way to go here.

Justice Kiefel's appointment is another important step in ensuring the changes needed to better serve Australian society. As a trailblazer, she immediately becomes an important role model for young women who no longer need feel that their sex is a bar to them aspiring to the top job.

More importantly, given women's life experiences and varied backgrounds and outlooks, they can be expected to add dimensions not otherwise known to the historically male-dominated court system, with the all-male atmosphere of the High Court not breached until the appointment of Mary Gaudron in 1987.

How refreshing to now have three women justices on the Court, including one as Chief Justice? But the task is ongoing. The just and appropriate goal is an equal balance and representation so that women can rightly take their place as active citizens in all areas of civic life. When that happens, the significance of trailblazing appointments like Justice Kiefel's will thankfully no longer be remarkable.

Kim Rubenstein is a professor in the ANU College of Law and chief investigator on the ARC Linkage grant Trailblazing Women and the Law which recently launched the online exhibition Australian Women Lawyers as Active Citizens See http://www.womenaustralia.info/lawyers/index.html