VH: “Was hiring so many women lawyers part of your plan, Matthew?”
MW: “I’ve always felt that women make better lawyers. In fact, I feel it’d be better if the entire firm was made up of women lawyers. But then, I’d be unemployed.”
It’s been an exciting couple of weeks here at Orange LLP – we’ve officially welcomed Lisa R. G. Winter-Card, Sonia Grewal, and Vicky Wong to our team. All bring a tremendous and diverse wealth of knowledge and experience to our firm in refugee, immigration, and employment and human rights law, and speak an astonishing six languages between them (given our field of practice, multilingualism is crucial for our firm). And – last but not least, though ideally it should not be of particular note at all – they’re all women. Aside from our managing partner, in fact, all of the lawyers working at Orange LLP are women, and the members of our dynamic legal and administrative staff are predominantly women as well. This gender distribution strikes us as unique, but is it? Today we’ll discuss gender distribution in Canadian law firms: how far have we come in the last century, and how far do we have to go?
Dr. Fiona Kay of Queen University puts it well: women’s “entry and rising representation in the legal profession is one of the most remarkable changes to the legal profession over the past 150 years.” As the twentieth century dawned, slowly – very slowly – women lawyers began battling their way into the profession, but by the 1970s, real progress set in: in Canada, only 1 in 20 lawyers in 1970 was a woman, and as of 2005, 1 of every 3 three lawyers was a woman. This is tremendous and exciting progress, but extensive research suggests that, just as in all labor sectors, women lawyers still face ‘sex segregation,’ face harassment both in court and in the workplace and, while most law schools now have at least 50% female students, the percentage of women associates and partners is far lower than this. And it gets worse from there.
Research conducted over the last decade shows that, while geographic constraints, being married, and receiving help from a contact were all positively associated for Toronto-based men lawyers, they impacted Toronto-based women lawyers negatively. In the US, women comprise only about 15% of equity partners and 26% of non-equity partners, even though 46% of law firm associates are women. Among equity partners, women make about 89% of men, and just 4% of law firms have female managing partners. Women are furthermore vastly underrepresented on governance committees, holding only 20% of committee positions. And let’s not even get started on the sexual harassment, demeaning comments, and negative courtroom environments women lawyers face. Research conducted by York University shows that many firms feel that this under-representation, poor treatment, and underpayment is justifiable because women “contribute less to the firm, are less committed, and less willing to work the hours necessary to excel in law firm culture.” This is of course ridiculous, sexist, and upsetting, and one only need to visit our office for about twenty minutes to dispel this theory. Initiatives like The Retention of Women program attempt to regulate and address this tremendous systemic issue, but have been criticized as ineffectual as many firms lack transparency about the gendered nature of their employment practises. The solution, according to Professor David Doorey of York University: mandatory annual breakdowns of gender composition and compensation, published widely.
There’s a bright side, though. Awareness of discrimination issues seems to be increasing: according to a Canadian study, the overwhelming majority of lawyers (99% of women and 83% of men) agreed that gender bias occurs regularly in the legal profession. And Dr. Kay shows that womens’ presence in law has actually reshaped, refocused, and deeply improved the practise itself. More ‘feminine’ and highly effective collaborative approaches are increasingly seen in firms, and women, who still face disadvantages in the “broader societal system of gender relations,” bring a heightened sensitivity, awareness, and fresh approaches to many cases. This perspective is crucial, because while law strives for objectivity, how might a system with a homogeneous composition (that is to say, composed entirely of white male lawyers, as it once was) truly take into account a variety of worldviews and life experiences, and truly be objective?
 Kay, Gorman. 300
 Kay, Gorman. 301
 Hagan & Kay 1995.
 Kay et al. 2004, Rhode 2001, Ross
et al. 1992,Wilder 2007.
 Brockman, 1992
 Kay, Gorman. 321