Macquarie University
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Playing the game differently? Revealing connections between past experiences of playing sport, the gender leadership gap, and structural change in Australia’s legal profession

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posted on 2023-02-15, 23:51 authored by Jodie SkellernJodie Skellern

Women have made up the majority of law graduates for over a quarter of a century and are now the majority of lawyers in every state and territory in Australia. Notwithstanding a significant investment in change, women in the legal sector face bullying and sexual harassment, and remain underrepresented as full equity Partner leaders in Big Law firms. This thesis provides a new insight into the underrepresentation of women in leadership roles in the legal profession, and outlines a potential path for reform that could inform equality-enabling change more broadly. Although the gender leadership gap is often discussed in terms of a remuneration discrepancy, I argue that the gap also reflects a mismatch between competencies and organisation models. Change programs aimed at gender equality have been informed by organisation theory, but the focus is entirely on change within the workplace alone. Programs to remove gendered sub-text from workplace policies and procedures, and raise awareness of implicit bias in decision-making processes, have not sufficiently addressed the resistance to change that is now apparent. I argue that resistance to change can stem from social conditions beyond the workplace that then produce dispositions and practices attuned to social structures of masculine domination within the workplace. To address this problem, a critical sociological framework for understanding transformational change needs to better identify those potentials for change that lie outside the legal workplace. Using mixed empirical methods, I deploy Bourdieu’s theoretical framework and concepts to identify connections between the gender leadership gap, participation in sport while growing up, and the broader set of competencies required in the new economy. I argue that gendered social experiences outside the workplace, specifically past participation in sport, is an important yet under-researched barrier to women’s advancement in the legal profession. Sports participation develops a form of cultural capital that is recognised as crucial workplace competencies when transferred from the informal sporting arena to the formalised domain of work. A crucial finding is that, although male experiences of sport continue to develop competencies effective in traditional organisation models of the industrial era, female experiences of sport are different, and they are more easily translated into the practice of competencies valued by ‘agile organisations’ operating in the new economy. I find that traditional Big Law firms misrecognise certain embodied and gendered cultural capital developed through past participation in sport. By contrast, more agile organisations harness unrecognised feminine sports-shaped cultural capital to disrupt the legal services sector.


Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Literature Review: Unsuspected Connections Between the Gender Leadership Gap and Sport -- Chapter 2. Theoretical Framework: Making Sense of the Connections with Bourdieu -- Chapter 3. Methodology: Researching Connections Between Sport, Gender, and Competencies -- Chapter 4. Part 1. Results: Developing Transferable Gendered Sporting Competencies -- Chapter 4. Part 2. Results: Practising Transferable, Gendered, Sports-Shaped Competencies -- Chapter 5. Results: Practising Gendered Sporting Capital in the Workplace -- Chapter 6. Results: Recognition of Sports-Shaped Gendered Capital In The Workplace -- Chapter 7. Discussion: How Sporting Capital Contributes to the Gender Leadership Gap and Change -- Conclusion: Driving Change by Playing the Game Differently -- References -- Appendices

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis PhD

Department, Centre or School

Department of Sociology

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

Shaun Wilson

Additional Supervisor 1

Justine Lloyd


Copyright: The Author Copyright disclaimer:






372 pages

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