Reviewing "Women and the Law" panel: Equality does not happen on women’s backs alone (a 1L student perspective)

January 16, 2018

Gender is an inescapable influence on our own perceptions of the world and how the world perceives us. Turning our minds to our peers’ challenges promotes diversity in the legal community. The panel on Women and the Law (held at noon on January 11, 2018 at Robson Hall) was an insightful discussion that men would benefit from considering and internalizing. As a man, I think that sharing some of the key moments that I took away from the panel may be beneficial for other men looking for ways to foster a more inclusive legal system. Personally, I value diversity at the bar because not only, in my view,  is exclusivity reprehensible, but society loses the potential unleashed by refusing to give serious considerations to perspectives of people situated in different socio-political and cultural roles than oneself.

 

The first question the panelists responded to was about sexism, subtle and blatant, that they have experienced at work.  All four panelists were largely in agreement that instances of sexism in their workplaces were rare.

 At first, only a couple of specific examples were given. However, over the next hour and a half, many examples of gendered treatment were brought up. Age, experience, and context were also factors identified as impacting their work. This generation of lawyers who are women experience less overt sexism than past generations. While attitudes have changed and mistreatment has become less visible, discriminatory conduct may have, to a degree, become normalized. It is up to a new generation of lawyers to work with their colleagues by identifying actions that disproportionately negatively affect one group over another.

 

“Women’s issues” is the umbrella misnomer for a range of challenges that are deemed to predominantly impact women. Structural workplace issues, for example around parental leave or childcare, have only become women’s issues by virtue of men largely abdicating parental responsibility. As one panelist pointed out, she is judged when her child is the last one picked up from daycare, but no thought is given to why her partner (regardless of gender) did not complete the task.

 

Pregnancy and motherhood are choices that many lawyers embrace. Especially when the pregnant partner is the family’s breadwinner, economic policies can have a large impact on quality of life. Until recently, few if any private firms topped up Employment Insurance payments to lawyers who became mothers and chose to take time after from work. Flexible return options are seldom available. One panelist described that at her small firm (that was run by a woman) the option of working part-time to suit her schedule would not have been available in a large firm, where her assistant would be there full-time regardless of her work commitments. Government benefits, not surprisingly, are significantly better funded than in the private sector.

 

Examples of women experiencing less respect than their male counterparts are all too common. For example, when  Judges direct their questions toward junior male colleagues in the presence of more senior and established woman practitioners. In other situations, clients shake the hands of a male but not their female peer. Women having to repeat their point multiple times to get it across, is also a recurring phenomenon. Sadly, none of these are unique to women as lawyers (other groups experience this, particularly lawyers with disabilities, for instance), but the phenomena illustrate the general pattern of lack of equal respect that women receive in most, if not all, walks of life.

 

One story that illustrated deep inequality involved counsel asking for a break during court. Initially the judge said no. She asked again and The Judge said only for a minute, assuming the lawyer had to use the washroom. She asked again, explaining that she had to pump her breasts to alleviate the painful swelling and collect food to later feed her baby. The Judge and the opposing attorney were caught off guard, with blushing embarrassment she was granted her break. Making law more accessible to women can take the form of understanding a breastfeeding mother needs to take longer breaks than normal. Accommodating her does not to be an exception nor does it need to be a moment of embarrassment and shame. Inclusivity absolutely requires people not to become flustered by natural bodily functions.

 

Gender also impacts client behaviour and responses to lawyer’s work. In criminal matters, a defense attorney described a trend for men facing allegations of sexual violence to hire female counsel. She then explained that women who defend men facing charges related to sexual violence are frequently vilified by other women, and labeled anti-feminists. In both cases, the reaction to the lawyer’s actions were coloured by gendered expectations. A nauseating Catch-22. The panelist faced public backlash for her practise and then emphasized the distinction between propagating rape myths to gain an advantage at trial versus protecting the presumption of innocence, while performing a function within the legal system with integrity. She believes that protecting the presumption of innocence is her primary role. Assumptions about how women should behave undegird the complex challenges women face in legal practise.

 

Possibly the most important take away from the panel was that women's experiences are not monolithic  - their experiences are multivalent, complex and often, distinct. Women have different careers goals, ideas about what their work-life balance should look like, plans to have a family, or not, and public policy beliefs. Imagining that generalizations about women can be made strikes at the core of the challenges women face as lawyers. The days of firms asking female applicants about their plans to start a family are hopefully over, but the underlying attitude remains. There is no doubt in my mind that these are all, without question, men’s problems too.

 

Ultimately, the panel confirmed my opinion that unfortunately patriarchy is pervasive in our society. Its ideals and norms are deeply embedded in our thoughts and actions. Complete and total escape from its influence is seemingly insurmountable. In my view, the best way to counteract these norms is to reflect on assumptions, listen to the experiences of other people, and show compassion when it is called for. Engaging in legal practise with this in mind will not just be beneficial for women but also for all people from underrepresented backgrounds. In turn, this will enhance collective welfare in the practise of law with a more varied range of alternatives for a diverse clientele. Breaking down barriers, making room for all humans, is simply good legal practise.

 

 

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