When it Comes to Empowering Women, Are We Lacking the Male Voice?
Guest Blogger, Jaeda Lee, returns to the Dear LiL Blog to share her thoughts on an event she recently attended focused on the importance of having women in positions of leadership in law.
I recently had the pleasure of attending a virtual event hosted by the Vancouver Bar Association entitled “Empowering Women”. The keynote speaker for the event, the Right Honourable Beverley McLachlin, could not have been a more perfect choice for the role as she was the first woman Chief Justice of Canada.
As many already know, the former Chief Justice McLachlan is a well-known champion of Canadians’ rights from all walks of life, women included. She presided over charged debates on topics such as same-sex marriage, euthanasia, and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. With each judgment, she laid down a legal legacy proving that fairness and justice are not luxuries of the powerful but rather rights owed to each and every one of us.
The former Chief Justice shared with the women in attendance that she knew from a very early age she wanted to do something that was not ordinary, and I think it is safe to say she achieved that goal. One of the few women studying law in the 1960s, she graduated at the top of her class and began her long career—first as a dedicated lawyer and professor, later as a judge serving on the highest court in the country, and finally as the first woman to be named Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada.
The event focused on the importance of having women in positions of leadership. It is no secret our profession struggles to retain women lawyers and while we have come a long way in our attitudes towards women in the workplace, there remains a widespread yet quieter gender bias. Some of those gender biases still prevalent in today’s legal profession include sexist and/or derogatory comments from male colleagues, the negative impact of maternity leave on partnership tracking, lack of flexible work arrangements, and an ever pervasive old boys club that results in less networking opportunities for women.
Ultimately, there remains a big issue with women leaving the profession at a faster and higher rate than men. As the Law Society of BC has pointed out, the public is best served when lawyers reflect the communities they represent. Women have been participating in the legal profession in BC in numbers equal to or greater than men for more than a decade. Yet women represent only about 34% of all practicing lawyers in the province and only about 29% of lawyers in full-time private practice.
The former Chief Justice points out in the conversation about women in leadership, that the male voice is noticeably absent. The most vocal advocates for women are other women, but we need men stepping up and speaking out to support gender parity in the upper echelons of organizations. She emphasized there is a positive obligation on both women and men to speak up against the inequities we see in the world … and a good place to start is in your own workplace.
While the keynote speech did not specifically indicate what we can do to address the issue of gender equality, I’d like to share my thoughts on what men in leadership can do to actively empower women:
Recognize this issue is systemic. Retention is not an issue because we lack female talent, or women choose families over careers. It is much more complicated and nuanced. The only way to address the unconscious bias in our profession is to first acknowledge that it exists. Once you see it, you can confront it.
Listen, engage, and advocate. Now more than ever, it is vital that we listen to women (I mean, really listen). Hear their stories, engage with compassion and curiosity, and advocate for female leadership in your workplace.
Allow flexible working. This will help women and men sustain the daily demands of their workload while also maintaining a healthy work life balance. As the Chief Justice noted, this career is a marathon, not a sprint.
The former Chief Justice concluded her remarks by encouraging attendees not to be afraid of being branded as troublemakers. In her words, “don’t accept artificial barriers, reject them as wrong and move on, go forward with strength imagination and determination, secure in the knowledge that you can realize your dream, whatever it may be”.
About the Author
Jaeda Lee is an associate at Harper Grey LLP practicing in insurance and health law and a frequent guest to the Dear LiL Blog. An avid volunteer, Jaeda gives much of her time to the ACTS Water Charity, an organization focused on providing clean, accessible water to those who need it most.