For Women in Law By Women in Law

Diversity of Socioeconomic Backgrounds

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Not coming from wealth can have an impact on the building of business, the sense of belonging etc., which is compounded by also identifying as female.

In the professional world, the journey for those who do not hail from affluent backgrounds can be an uphill battle. For women in particular, the intersection of socioeconomic challenges and gender bias creates a unique set of obstacles that demand resilience and determination. In this post, I discuss how the absence of financial privilege can impact various aspects of one’s life, from education to career advancement.


The Costs of Formal Education

Formal education is the basis of our legal careers. Those who lack the means often face hurdles accessing quality schools and education. In addition, they may lack the time and resources necessary for extracurricular activities, internships, networking events, professional development workshops, tutoring, and even basic school supplies such as textbooks.

Without the financial means to pursue formal education, it can be a struggle to acquire the qualifications and skills necessary for a desired career path. The cost of law school is a barrier that often prevents quality candidates from qualifying for enrollment, or the only alternative is to commit to living with high levels of debt. Oftentimes the answer to the question “what school did you go to?” determines whether someone is considered for an opportunity over others. Consequently, this uphill battle can leave aspiring professionals feeling unprepared and at a disadvantage right from the start.


Living With Debt

Student loans and accumulated debts often become the unwanted but necessary companions of those striving to break the cycle of financial adversity. Managing this financial burden often means playing it safe and it can hinder professional pursuits. Getting out of debt can be a daunting challenge for non-privileged individuals, impacting both their personal and professional growth.

Student loans incurred to finance higher education creates a significant financial burden, often perpetuating a cycle where individuals struggle to advance their careers due to the constraints imposed by debt repayment obligations. The stress and anxiety associated with managing debt can undermine confidence and self-esteem. The stigma surrounding debt may contribute to feelings of shame or inadequacy, further isolating individuals from their peers and hindering their ability to assert themselves and pursue career opportunities.


It’s Who You Know

Individuals from affluent backgrounds often benefit from significant advantages in the professional world. Apart from access to quality education, networking opportunities can do a lot to propel one’s career forward with relative ease. Knowing influential people and having connections within industries can open doors to coveted positions and opportunities that may be out of reach for those without such privileges. While merit and talent certainly play a role in success, it is undeniable that wealth and connections can significantly expedite one’s journey to professional achievement.


Playing It Safe

High risks often lead to high rewards, and individuals without a financial safety net may find themselves constrained by the fear of failure. Developing a successful legal career often requires us to take certain risks, whether that is moving away for work, starting your own business or venture, investing in partnerships, changing career paths or practice areas, or seeking further qualifications. Without the cushion of financial support, the stakes are higher. Many from less privileged backgrounds opt for safer, more conventional pathways, limiting their pursuit of innovative ideas and endeavours.

The intersection of gender and socioeconomic status can exacerbate this fear of failure. Women from non-wealthy backgrounds experience a heightened sense of imposter syndrome and feelings of inadequacy, especially in environments where they are underrepresented or undervalued. This can lead to a diminished sense of belonging and confidence in their abilities, impacting their willingness to pursue ambitious career goals or assert themselves in traditionally male-dominated industries such as law.


Gender Pay Gap and Fewer Professional Opportunities

For women, these challenges are compounded by the gender pay gap and fewer professional opportunities. Research consistently highlights the disparity in earnings, with women often receiving less compensation for equivalent work, further limiting the resources available for career development. Moreover, biases such as the motherhood penalty, where women face decreased wages and opportunities after having children, and the glass ceiling effect, which limits women’s advancement into leadership positions, further exacerbate this disparity. These biases not only hinder women’s advancement into leadership positions but also affects their earning potential and perceived suitability for certain roles within the workplace.


Despite the challenges, individuals who persevere and find ways to overcome financial barriers demonstrate exceptional resilience and determination, qualities that can greatly enhance their success once they enter the legal profession. By providing accessible opportunities for education, mentorship, and career advancement, we can empower aspiring legal professionals to overcome challenges and reach their full potential. Through inclusive initiatives and support networks, we ensure that talent and dedication, not privilege, drives success in our profession.

I believe that we are collectively becoming more aware of socioeconomic issues and the privileges that comes with wealth. Regardless of background or gender, each person brings a unique set of skills and perspectives that enrich our profession, and we should give everyone an equal opportunity to do so.


About the Author

Grace Smyth-Bolland is an associate with Harper Grey LLP and works with their Business Law Group. Grace joined Harper Grey as an articling student in 2021, completed her articles with the firm and was called to the BC bar in 2022. She completed her law and philosophy degrees at Adelaide University in 2015 and 2016 before immigrating to Canada from Australia in 2017.

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