CBA Leadership Conference for Professional Women

  • October 18, 2019

Bonjour √† toutes et √† tous. C’est un plaisir pour moi d’√™tre parmi vous aujourd’hui comme repr√©sentante de l’Association du Barreau canadien et de ses trente six mille membres – dont pr√®s de la moiti√© sont des femmes.  

Penelope Trunk, the author of The Brazen Careerist, says “it’s never good for one’s career to be in a room full of women unless you’re a model or a stripper. Because where there are women there are lower salaries.”

And according to Trunk that’s women’s own fault. Apparently, women don’t get paid less because they’re women, they get paid less because they choose to do work that is less well-paid. They’re family doctors instead of specialists; social workers instead of psychiatrists. If they want to earn more, Trunk says, they should go into higher-paying jobs.

So her logic would suggest that female lawyers should choose to become high-powered corporate litigators instead of working in-house or for government. On the face of it, the idea has merit (although flawed). But as we all know, there are a number of factors going into any career choice – and sometimes those factors leave you with no choice at all. And sorry, Penelope, but research suggests that women working in-house earn less than men working in-house. Try again.

The dream of equality, of course, is to be in a room where your gender identity isn’t a factor in the decision about the kind of work you will do, or how much money you will earn, or what the overriding firm culture will be and who will fit into it.

Il nous reste encore du chemin √† faire pour atteindre cet id√©al, mais une des fa√ßons d’y arriver est en s’appuyant sur les communaut√©s qui nous entourent.

A community isn’t just the name of the geographic location where you live, it’s a facet of everything you are. And it takes many communities to produce a successful professional woman.

Many of the communities to which you belong relate to the adjectives that describe you. Because I’m a black, female in-house lawyer, my communities include the CBA, the CCCA, the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers, … women lawyers. I’m part of still more communities that serve causes that inspire me.

Communities can be accidental or intentional but they do not thrive without purpose, without common goals and a commitment to furthering those goals.

There are many roles to fill in any given community: leader is probably the most important one, because without leadership it’s hard to get anything done. Without dreamers there are no goals; without entrepreneurs and taxpayers it’s hard to finance the projects to achieve those goals.

Without builders and workers it’s impossible to complete them. Each group intersects with each of the others at various places, weaving a mesh that underpins a cohesive community.

Let’s imagine a Venn diagram of the people in this room. At the centre is the biggest point of intersection: with the exception of the one man who I know of who registered for this conference (Hi Ray!) we’re women, it’s something we all have in common. We all share parts of a story based on that commonality.

Not everyone here today practises law but most of us are professionals, with all the points of contact that come with having to deal with a world that was largely not built for us … a world which we’ve had to either shape to fit us, or change ourselves to fit.

After that it would likely be lawyers, with smaller groups of in-house lawyers, public- and private-sector lawyers, and other groups based on practice type.

Entrepreneurs will intersect with some of those practice areas, so will politicians. The degree of commonality increases as the community gets smaller.

In 1993 the CBA’s Task Force on Gender Equality published its Touchstones for Change report, calling for equality, diversity and accountability in the legal profession. The Task Force noted clear evidence of unequal treatment for women lawyers, and described the barriers facing women who wanted to succeed in their chosen profession.

Barriers such as discrimination in employment opportunities, sexual harassment, and lack of accommodation for family responsibilities.

Et nous voil√† vingt-six ans plus tard : les femmes ont encore aujourd'hui la responsabilit√© premi√®re des soins √† la famille, elles se font encore harcel√©es en milieu de travail, et bon nombre d’entre elles quittent la pratique priv√©e pour se trouver un meilleur environnement de travail, ou bien abandonnent tout simplement leurs carri√®res en droit.

A Catalyst report on Women in Law notes that in 2016 there were 43,595 practising female lawyers, and 53,257 practising male lawyers in Canada. When we talk about new lawyers, women outnumber men in most regions, but when we look at senior leadership, particularly in private firms, men outnumber women by a large margin.

Women take home just 93 per cent of men’s salaries, regardless of their career stage.

And I don’t have to tell you, but I will, that people of colour and Indigenous lawyers remain underrepresented, relative to their numbers in the general population.

There are likely businesswomen and politicians in the room who can tell their own versions of that story.

Many of the young women who leave private firms end up working for government and in-house, creating what’s been called the Pink Ghetto, defined as jobs that are dominated by women, which are often stressful, underpaid and have little room for advancement.

Penelope Trunk saw her community and felt weakened by it. We need to turn that around by building communities that empower us.

Today is Person’s Day. On Oct. 18, 1929, women officially became “persons” under the law. That didn’t happen in a vacuum. It took years of courageous effort by Nellie McClung, Emily Murphy, Irene Parlby, Louise McKinney and Henrietta Muir Edwards,  to ensure that women were accorded personhood. These women, the Famous Five, are a perfect example of how women working together can change things for the better.

Individually we can’t change the toxic corporate culture that pushes so many of us out, but together we can create a pressure that makes it less acceptable.

We can use our critical mass to bend that culture into a more pleasing shape. We can start our own firms or businesses with a different culture and make success the best revenge.

An old fable uses a stick to demonstrate the strength of community. One thin stick is easy to snap, but a bundle of those sticks is nearly impossible to break. Men will often be allies and sponsors, but women are our first and most important community. But women are not a homogenous group – we need to take down the barriers between ourselves too – like age or family status – and work together. We need to mentor and, more importantly, sponsor each other. Create a profession in our own image, where we can make real career choices, do the work that satisfies us, whether that’s corporate litigation or legal aid, because that’s what we want to do.

The women that are sitting in the chairs besides you today - that’s your community. Let it make you stronger. But in turn, contribute to making it stronger.  

Merci, thank you, and bonne conférence.