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Celia Chandler
Because it's 2015: Calling for gender equality in the legal profession

| December 17, 2015
Because it's 2015: Calling for gender equality in the legal profession

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"Because it's 2015"...

was the freshly minted PM's response to the question, "why gender parity in the cabinet?" And good on him. I think we can all agree that equality of numbers is a start and can set a tone for the rest of society.

I've been reminded a few times lately that Justin's tone of sunny ways regarding gender parity is sadly lacking in the legal profession.  

I was shocked recently to hear a fellow female member of the bar recount what happened when she ran into a client on the way into her office building. Said male client called her the modern-day equivalent of "babe" and then told her she had a "great figure." Seriously? She's been handling his legal transactions for the last three years competently and capably. Never once has her figure been relevant to the work she's done. She awkwardly changed the subject and then spent the evening and the following day wondering what she should have done or said differently. What's peculiar to me though is that while she was disturbed about it, she didn't seem that surprised. 

I've discussed this incident at length with her and others her age, and her views are representative. It's not that young women don't want things to be different; they simply don't hold out much hope for any change. Instead, they remain quietly resigned that this is the way it is.

Once I started to pay more attention, other examples of sexism and the level of tolerance required of young female lawyers emerged. 

  • According to its website, Young Women in Law is a not-for-profit organization for women in their early stages of practice and acts as a central forum to connect, enhance their skills, and give back to their community. On November 26, 2015, YWL hosted a networking event called "Becoming your own beauty guru" with Shiseido, a cosmetics company. Networking be damned -- the real point of this event was to give YWL members makeup tutorials so that they could really dazzle their employers and clients. Really? And worse still, Canadian Lawyer magazine reported on this without a critical eye. Canadian Lawyer readers, however, were not so charitable; after 18 comments ranging from scathing to sarcastic, they closed the site to further criticism. Also a bit telling.
  • The University of Western Ontario Law School has a co-educational intramural hockey team. Law students need to do something other than study to maintain sanity and there's no reason that playing hockey should be limited to men. This seems like a good news story for women preparing for the profession. But it's recently been discovered that for two years, the team has used the name "Dixon Cider" (note to reader -- slowly say this out loud to catch why this is seriously offensive). Once noticed by the school administration, the team has renamed themselves. But what's a mystery to me is that the team members -- men and women, recall -- did not see the offence. 
  • In my own UVic law school days, 2002-2005, I was one of only a handful of female students who took issue with the fact that among the items of clothing being sold by the UVic Law Students' Society was a thong -- perhaps the most sexualized item of clothing that a woman might commonly don. No, not a thong making any commentary on sexual consent -- for example, "No means No" could have been embroidered on it -- but just a thong embroidered with the school logo. No male equivalent, I hasten to add. When we made a complaint, we were the subject of scorn and derision. Indeed, there are people from our cohort laughing as they read this now. I've never really understood why this was funny. (But I've been proud of the moniker "jurisprude" ever since.) 

Contrast that to when I was in graduate school 25 years ago. On December 6, 1989, Marc Lepine killed 14 female engineering students at the École Polytechnique. I was studying feminist political theory. If my feminist consciousness had not already been awakened, Lepine's actions did it. Countless women of my generation believed that things could be different and felt the passion to make it so. At the same time, countless men became involved in organizations like the White Ribbon Campaign, an organization which today boasts chapters in 60 countries seeking to promote healthy relationships, gender equity and a compassionate vision of masculinity. 

What the hell happened? Women now are more attuned to these issues than ever, and less confident that anything will change. It makes me sad.

So Justin -- indeed, congratulations. Let those 30 women and men in your cabinet show us all that sex is irrelevant to merit. And please let that viewpoint trickle down into all parts of society, even law.

Because it's 2015.

Iler Campbell LLP is a law firm serving co-ops, not-for-profits, charities and socially-minded small business and individuals in Ontario.

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