Class of '87: where are we now?
Julie Soars and Jon North graduated from law school in 1987; Here they discuss their careers, children and the elusive work-life balance.PT0M0S 620 349
When the Sydney University law graduate class of 1987 smiled on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald in 1989, they were optimistic about the future.
Most of the young men and women worked side by side in Sydney's leading law firms on an equal salary footing in what they believed was a meritocratic profession.
But more than 25 years on, a university research project that has followed their trajectories has found the men are generally earning higher salaries than the women.
Julie Soars, Magdalen Malone, Carl Middlehurst, Jon North and Nicky McWilliam. Photo: Peter Rae
Despite expectations of equal opportunities, for many of the women, raising a family still meant making sacrifices in promotion, seniority and the number of hours they could give to their jobs.
''The tipping point appears to be three children for women,'' says Marian Baird, a professor of employment relations in the University of Sydney Business School, who led the research project. She said the sacrifices women had to make to raise families had become greater over time because corporations were leaner and work more high pressured.
''It certainly hasn't abated,'' she said. ''With one or two children, they seem to be combining work, but often in a part-time capacity.''
Professor Baird said contrary to their expectations as graduates 25 years ago, women had experienced discrimination on the basis of gender and family responsibilities, whereas men had reported it on the basis of disability or ethnicity.
Close to two-thirds of the men from the graduate class now worked more than 50 hours a week, compared with almost a quarter of the women.
Magdalen Malone, 49, completed a combined science/law degree with honours in 1987, then worked at Allen Allen and Hemsley for two years before getting married.
When her lawyer husband was posted to Jakarta, she joined him and studied Indonesian. After having three children in three years, she devoted herself to them full time.
''I think we were all treated equally [in the legal profession], but biology and circumstance got me out of that more linear [career progression],'' she said.
Ms Malone has run family businesses, including a small cattle operation, but has not worked in the legal field since the early years of her career.
''It's not how I imagined it would happen,'' she said. ''But I don't regret it. I am looking at getting into something law-related now my youngest is 16.''
Julie Soars worked as a solicitor after graduating with Ms Malone and never dreamt of becoming a barrister.
Four years ago, at the age of 45, she had a child. She said it would have been more difficult maintaining her career if she had children in her 30s.
''That helped in terms of my career in that I had time to establish it before I went on maternity leave,'' she said. ''I'd already purchased chambers, so I was lucky.''
Ms Soars is among 17 per cent of women in her graduating class who are now self-employed lawyers. That compares with a similar proportion - 20 per cent - of men.
After the 1987 batch graduated, an even proportion of both sexes - 59 per cent of women and 61 per cent of men - went to work at large private legal firms. A small proportion of women - 6 per cent - worked in the public sector, and 2 per of the men worked at a financial institution.
Fast forward 25 years to the present, and the research project shows that a much lower proportion of those students are still working for large firms - 29 per cent of men and 11 per cent of women. Two-thirds of the men and a quarter of the women now earn salaries above $300,000.
Where are they now?
Julie Soars never imagined she would become a barrister when she graduated and started work as a solicitor. Four years ago, at the age of 45, she had a child. She says it would have been more difficult maintaining her career as a barrister if she had children in her 30s.
'You do need to be more flexible when you have a child. It can be hard for women to rebuild their careers.'
Magdalen Malone, 49, completed a combined science/law degree with honours in 1987, then worked at Allen Allen and Hemsley for two years before getting married. She joined her husband in Jakarta where she studied Indonesian. She had three children in three years and hasn't worked in the law since her early years at Allens. 'I think we were all treated equally [in the legal profession], but biology and circumstance got me out of that more linear [career progression].'
Carl Middlehurst, 52, worked for many years as an in-house lawyer after completing a combined science honours and law degree. He now works at the start-up technology company, NICTA, after having spent more than 10 years in the US. 'Many people in the first cohort thought that there were no barriers in their careers. But after two children, women didn't do as well.'
Jon North, who started work at Allen Allen and Hemsley with Magdalen Malone and Nicky McWilliam, became a senior associate after four years. He then moved overseas to work for a top law firm in England. Like Malone, he married and had three children but it didn't slow him down in his career. In 1996, he became a partner at Allens at the age of 32 and now runs his own corporate legal and financial advice business. 'Out of my year only three or four of us made partnership and one was a woman.'
After graduating in 1987, Nicky McWilliam worked at Allen Allen and Hemsley before going to SKY TV as an in-house counsel. She married and moved to London and took seven years out of work to raise three children. After returning to Australia, she completed a Masters of Law in dispute resolution and worked as an academic at the University of Technology Sydney law school, while completing a doctorate. She established a private mediation practice. 'I had to pedal so hard to get back. I took it very seriously, I wanted to be a part of the workforce.'