Influencing Positive Change
Associate Justice Mary-Jane Ierodiaconou
Words by Jerome Doraisamy, photography by Miles Standish
From an early age, Justice Mary-Jane Ierodiaconou knew the importance of showing initiative in order to effect positive change.
Born in dairy farming country Victoria, her maternal grandfather – who had served in World War II – involved her in visits to war widows, imbibing the idea of contribution to the community around you.
After a family move to Melbourne, with her paternal Greek-Cypriot grandparents residing nearby, she developed a clear understanding of personal identity and the ability to move between different ethnic communities.
Empathetic service to others continued with her own parents. Her mother in particular was passionate about gender and racial equality, and would often pass on media articles and books on those topics.
This multifaceted and multicultural upbringing gave Her Honour “a really strong sense and belief in equality of opportunity”, which also influenced her passion for social justice.
“When I finally decided to apply for law school [after first studying arts], it was really because I wanted to change the world, and make it a better place,” she said.
“Like my mother, I was passionate about human rights and equality of opportunity.”
That overarching passion was eventually pointed in the direction of employment and workplace discrimination; following an experience as a summer clerk at a large law firm, where she worked on a pro bono matter for a female client who had been sexually harassed.
“That was an epiphany for me – I suddenly realised that my studies in feminist legal theory and discrimination law could be applied in an employment and discrimination law practice,” Her Honour reflected.
She is quick to point out that, while she has sought to further diversity and equality of opportunity across her career, the strength of her work has come partly from being able to work with like-minded individuals.
At university, it was as part of the Women’s Law Collective, a group that visited high schools to explain recent amendments to sexual assault laws to students. As a practitioner, it was as a volunteer at a community legal centre, providing pro bono advice to refugees and migrants, as well as co-authoring a report on gender-based asylum claims.
“Being part of these groups of people who were working towards providing equal access to the law, equality of opportunity, was something that really gave me a sense of purpose,” she said.
One such meaningful instance was being part of a group of female lawyers who successfully lobbied their employer for an equal opportunity policy.
“At that time, many workplaces did not provide training on equal opportunity or prevention of sexual harassment. That training is much more common now, and there’s a greater awareness of legal obligations around those issues.”
Such progress does not mean, however, that we can be complacent.
“We know from research – from the Law Council of Australia and Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission – that one in four women are still being sexually harassed at work, including in legal workplaces,” she observes.
“We are still nowhere near equality of numbers in equity partnerships held by men and women. Yes, there’s been some progress, but there hasn’t in other regards.”
The implementation and enacting of such change has influenced Her Honour’s practice of law over the years, including at the law firm she co-founded and was managing partner of, up until her appointment to the bench.
Now a Supreme Court judge in Victoria, she is in a position to influence in a different fashion.
“One of the things I’m really passionate about is mentoring, so I try to discuss with mentees the values that are important to them, how they can work in a manner that’s consistent with those values, and in a way that that is sustainable so they have a long-term, healthy and rewarding legal career.”
When asked about positive differences the new generation – including her mentees - can bring about, Her Honour noted it was up to them, as older professionals shouldn’t be dictating what those coming through the ranks should do.
“I think it’s really exciting to see the ways that social media is being used by younger people to become connected with each other about like-minded issues and to publicise and promote issues that are important to them,” she explained.
“Many young people are creative, passionate and innovative, and they often have fabulous ideas about what to do next.
This is not to say, of course, that the younger generation cannot learn from the experiences and actions of those who have come before them – especially when responding to injustice or inequality.
“They should know that they’re not alone. There’s always somewhere to turn for help. [Whether it be] a trusted friend, colleague, family member, someone in human resources, a mentor or manager, they should discuss the issue. There are tools and ways of dealing with issues,” she said.
“They shouldn’t suffer in silence; that will be detrimental to their wellbeing, and it won’t help resolve the situation if they don’t do anything about it.”
This is perhaps the greatest lesson we can learn from Associate Justice Ierodiaconou’s career: taking positive and well-considered action can bring about lasting, meaningful change.
Copyright Doraisamy, Field and Standish 2016-2017