Empowered Women, Empower Women.
Kim Jakeman, co-founder, LiL & Partner, Harper Grey
Alexandra Mitretodis, Associate, Fasken
Pamela Meneguzzi, Senior Counsel, Government of Canada
Rose Keith, QC, Advisor, LiL & Associate Counsel, Harper Grey
Dionne Liu, Associate, Harper Grey
Kim: Good morning everyone. I’m so excited to be monitoring our third Life in Law panel discussion! We’ve brought together both senior and junior female lawyers today to explore whether there is a prevalence of unconscious bias by women against women in our profession and if so, what steps we can take to do better. So on that note – welcome!
Alexandra: Thank you for including me Kim!
Dionne: Yes, thank you Kim, I’m proud to be here with a few of my Harper Grey colleagues (and some new faces!), and to have the opportunity to take part in this initiative.
Rose: Great to be here with all of you.
Pamela: Thanks for having me back Kim! Ladies, great to be acquainted.
Kim: I appreciate your excitement and thank you all for being here to discuss a topic that may not be easy for us to talk about; do we as women support other women professionally? There has been a lot of talk in the community at large, not just the legal community, about women supporting one another to succeed, and whether or not we do. We have been taken by the phrase “empowered women empower women”, hearing it chanted on International Women’s Day and likely chanting it ourselves. While in theory, it all sounds great, in practice I honestly wonder whether this statement is true for the practice of law.
To begin, let’s start with Alexandra – do you agree that female lawyers support other female lawyers to succeed in the practice of law?
Alexandra: First off, women must advocate for themselves if they want to move their careers forward, but to succeed they can’t do it alone. I have seen female lawyers support other female lawyers at all different tiers of seniority. Many women in the profession give their time to formal mentorship programs both inside and outside of their firms, and to informal mentoring relationships that develop organically. In addition to this, many women in the profession develop peer support relationships. Many of us have an entire network of support from female lawyers who we may view as our law family (e.g. law mom, law aunt, law big sister, law little sister, law cousin etc.). I refer to one particular female lawyer champion of mine as my ‘law fairy godmother’. It’s important to find ways to lift up and support other women, especially as we still battle inequities between the genders in the workplace. And as we lift up other woman, we make incremental improvements for all women.
Pamela: That has been my experience Alexandra; courageous well-informed women support other women. The women who support other women are stand-outs. There are excellent discussions happening now and awareness of unconscious bias against women seems to be on the rise. I think senior women counsel need to be open to support. Positive thinking isn’t a guarantee of change, but it makes change more likely.
Dionne: I agree that there is certainly more and more support amongst female lawyers to succeed in the practice of law. I have been pretty fortunate to work in a law firm that has a lot of female representation, including at the partnership level. The female associates have had lunches and gatherings with the female partners to facilitate dialogue about our specific experiences and challenges. Speaking of law moms, Kim is certainly mine! That said, I think we can continue to do better. I have spoken with female lawyers, and even a female law student, who have felt unsupported by senior lawyers they worked with or encountered. That is tough to hear.
Rose: I also agree with this as a general statement and have also been very happy to see the work that has been done in that last number of years on identifying the reasons for the failure to retain women in the profession.
Kim: As I expected, we all agree that women are amongst the most influential support we can receive in our legal career, and I’m sure we’ve all had positive experiences to back up our opinions. On the flip side of that, have any of you experienced unconscious or conscious bias in the workplace, specifically by other women? And if so, do you think your experiences are exclusive to the legal profession?
Pamela: That’s a really good question but probably tough to answer. Bias rarely is stated overtly. Ways people undermine others normally happens behind the scenes. I definitely have witnessed unconscious bias by other women in the workplace. For example, gossip that criticizes a woman’s personality or behaviour happens. Gossip isn’t unique to law. There’s an excellent article in the Harvard Business Review that summarized research on the difference in how women are assessed versus men; judgments about behaviour of female colleagues is a common difference in how women are undermined. The article is linked here if you want to give it a read!
Alexandra: I haven’t read the article Pamela (I will now – thanks for the link!) but that type of judgement sounds so familiar. I also think there is a tendency to assign more administrative, file management and document production related tasks to junior female lawyers than male lawyers on a team because women are often viewed as reliable and organized. My experience is that both senior men and women unconsciously engage in this practice. The problem with this is that it takes away from junior female lawyers focusing on developing their advocacy skills.
At a more senior level, I have observed more female lawyers bearing the brunt of internal non-billable work in their firm than their male colleagues. Which, again, takes away from female lawyers focusing on billable work, external non-billable work (e.g. client development) and developing their legal skills.
Dionne: I haven’t experienced something that I can categorically say was unconscious or conscious bias. Rather, I have at times had sneaking afterthoughts that perhaps I would have been treated differently if I were a man. It is fleeting, but it is there. I do not think that this experience is exclusive to the legal profession, but it likely permeates other professions which have been traditionally dominated by men.
Rose: It’s not that I disagree, I just haven’t had this experience personally although my path has been different than many other women’s. I worked as a solo practitioner for 20 years and during that time I surrounded myself with mentors, many of whom were women. Those women supported me and helped me to succeed. But the construct of those relationships was different than where I envision bias is entering into the relationship with women. My sense is that the bias that we see arises most often in the context where there is the potential for competition between women for advancement, recognition or work itself. In my personal situation that was not a dynamic was present.
Kim: I really appreciate the variety of perspectives you all bring to the table, each of them are valid in their own way and completely relatable. Of course, we won’t all have the same experiences, for example a young female associate’s experiences in a working environment are arguably, quite different from her older female colleagues. As this younger generation of women enter and advance in the workforce, would you say there is resentment from the more senior women because of the challenges they faced and experienced “paving the way” for them?
Alexandra: I think that for every generation, male or female, the mentality is that the older generation had it harder than the younger generation. To the extent that senior female lawyers may struggle to support younger female lawyers, may be because they can’t empathize or relate to the struggles of the younger female lawyers.
Dionne: Perhaps that’s the case, although I have been fortunate enough not to have felt resentment from the senior women lawyers I have interacted with. That said, I wonder whether it is not resentment but rather needing time to come around to the idea that active support of women is actually necessary. At the outset of my career, I was fine with and wanted to be treated like the rest (ie. the men). I think, partly, I was just so grateful to have a job! But in my mind, achieving equality meant being treated the same way. However, more recently, I have come to realize that a more concerted effort likely has to be made to support women in order to actually achieve equality.
Pamela: How is this as a counterpoint; as a senior lawyer, I don’t feel resentment. I feel re-energized by hearing young(er) counsel name the biases they see. The part that I find interesting, is that younger counsel talk openly with more senior counsel (in safe spaces) about uncertainties they are feeling. I’ve felt valued and heard. So, no resentment here.
Rose: One of the theories behind why women do not provide the support you would expect to other women, is the idea that they have had to overcome the obstacles and so should those coming up behind them. My personal experience and relationships with women has not been that. Rather the more senior women who have mentored me or whom I have had relationships with have been generous with their time and knowledge, sharing with me the strategies and secrets to navigating a legal career with the biases and challenges that specifically impact women.
Now that I am myself a senior lawyer I purposely share the insecurities that I have felt, the challenges that I have experienced and the strategies I have used to overcome these challenges. I am hopeful that in doing so it is easier for the younger generation.
For me it has not been the practice of law that has been the challenge, it has been the social constructs around the many other roles that women play and balancing that against my drive to succeed in my profession that has been the biggest challenge. My hope is that through sharing my challenges it will help younger women find the balance that they need to find and the peace in the decisions that they make to achieve that balance.
Kim: Thank you all for your candor. My experience is similar to yours Rose. I think there is huge value in being vulnerable in your discussions with more junior female lawyers and hopefully this vulnerability will provide them some comfort and maybe new strategies to overcome their own challenges. The real fight here is against conservative societal norms.
It’s tough to admit (trust me) but some women really do struggle to support other women in our profession. Why do you think this is? Is it competitiveness? Our own insecurities? Or another issue entirely?
Dionne: I cannot really comment with any authority, but I would continue my previous train of thought. I wonder if it has to do with the need to wrap our minds around the idea that positive change for women in the profession requires such support. I know that I did not really get that when I first started out. I thought that achieving equality or success in this profession meant women beating men at their own game. I did not think it was necessary to treat women differently and thought that treating women differently could detract from the goal of achieving equality. I have come to realize that that approach tends to mean that women have to adapt themselves to the way that men do things. This is problematic as women face some challenges which are unique from men. Really, we need to change the way we view the legal profession to accommodate female perspectives.
Pamela: In some workplaces, I think the zero-sum game theory (i.e. each person’s gains or losses are exactly balanced by those of the other participants) explains simply what is a very complex set of reasons that varies person by person. Basically, I think that it has been difficult to support someone else if you believe support comes at your own cost. Many work environments are still top-heavy with men, and bottom-heavy with women. I wonder if we unconsciously think that there’s only so many places for women in leadership, and another woman’s progress means one less place for you. There are so many problems with this theory, starting with the narrow idea of success.
Rose: Well-said Pamela. Further to that, I believe that it is insecurity that drives the failure to support other women. There is no doubt that it is a significant challenge to succeed in our profession. It is a competitive profession and you are only as good as your current position. You are constantly having to prove yourself to your colleagues, your clients and those that are judging your cases. There is significant pressure professionally and the stakes are high. Clients rely on us to make things right and there is no room for error.
Women come to this environment of high stress and high demand also with external pressures. In my experience despite the fact that we have demanding high pressure jobs, we also face significant expectations in our home life and superimposed on that are societal expectations.
All of this combines to create an environment for women where there are significant demands and pressures. We all find our own way of juggling these demands and pressures and much of that ‘finding our way’ involves coming to a point where the judgment of others are let go.
Alexandra: Absolutely, I have observed that senior female lawyers with families are stretched very thin compared to their male colleagues because they likely have the primary child caring duties at home, they are trying to maintain their practice, and there are so few senior female lawyers in the profession that almost every single junior female lawyer relies on them for mentoring support. Many senior female lawyers simply don’t have the time or emotional bandwidth to support others, especially when they have to expend their energy advocating for themselves much more so than their male colleagues.
Rose: Speaking of emotional bandwidth, I have personally found that I have experienced what I perceived as a lack of support from women outside of our profession rather than inside the profession. Only after years of feeling uncertain about choices, have I come to the realization that my perception of lack of support from women in the community as opposed to the profession likely stems from me imposing my own insecurities on others.
When my children were young, I constantly felt that I was not doing enough, was not doing the right things and most concerningly was not a good mom. My perception was that all the women around me agreed with that perception. Walking through my world feeling that way had two negative consequences. I felt bad all the time and it also prevented me from creating relationships with women who were not a part of my profession but who were a part of my world because our children went to school together, did activities together or in some other way our worlds intersected.
It was only when I was able to let go of my perceptions and to be open to the relationship, vulnerable to my perceptions and understanding of the challenges that all women face regardless of their profession and in fact regardless of whether they are in the work force or not, that I was able to develop these relationships which in turn were a great support to me in my professional life.
To get to that point though required me to gain an understanding of my role in the relationship. Lawyers can be intimidating to those not in the profession. To the outside world our job and our professional lives can seem like a big deal. We get up in the morning, put on suits, and fight important battles on behalf of others. We are experts at using words, we are proficient at analyzing problems and in our general society, we are in positions of power. For other women in our community that can be intimidating.
I have learned over the years that I am better served viewing my world and my relationships through a lens of we are all doing our best, we all have our challenges and we all have our strengths. Setting aside judgment, perceptions and condemnation may result in a wealth of support that you did not anticipate and importantly don’t forget your role in supporting those around you.
Kim: Emotional bandwidth and our own insecurities. These really make it hard for us to realize our own success and without that self-realization it really is hard to support others. How do you think acknowledging these issues openly can ultimately unite us in the legal profession?
Rose: Well, if you extend my experience with women in the community to women in the legal profession, it is very possible that the lack of support that is perceived really is feelings of intimidation and possibly just perception. We all struggle with whether we are doing well enough, whether we are good enough and frankly whether we deserve to be where we are. We are all surrounded by women who are power-houses. They look amazingly put together, they juggle the many demands on them with ease and they command respect from their clients and colleagues. They are downright intimidating. Is what we are perceiving as a lack of support really intimidation and the impact that it has on how we interact with each other? What if we switched the conversation? What if instead of carefully curating our presentation to the outside world, we as women had real conversations with each other about how we all stumble, struggle and doubt? Authentic conversations may go a long way to making each of us feel more supported.
Kim: So, let’s switch up the conversation then. How can we do better, for ourselves and for women in the profession?
Alexandra: The primary way to help women out in the legal profession is for men to take on more responsibilities at home with child caring duties, in mentoring younger lawyers, and with internal non-billable work at their firms. This may alleviate the weight placed on female lawyers’ shoulders that render them too busy and run down to support other women in the profession.
Unconscious bias training is also a must for everyone in our profession.
Choosing to mentor younger female lawyers will also help the development of more senior female lawyers. Mentoring gives you feedback on your leadership style and keeps your perspectives relevant.
Dionne: I agree Alexandra, I think that raising awareness about and openly discussing this issue is important. As we talk about it more, we can start to peel back some of those existing biases or thoughts which may have held us back from supporting each other.
Pamela: I have a very simple theory for how we can do better. Be a friend to women – a friend is someone who says nice things about you when you are not there. Refer women for jobs and good work. Write gender neutral references for women focusing on their accomplishments not their personality.
Kim: Pamela that is just so simple and impactful. Rose?
Rose: From the diversity in our answers we already know there are many ways that we can do better. We can identify our own biases, whether pertaining to younger or older generations, and try to understand why they exist. We can continue to raise awareness about this issue by talking about it. The more conversations we have about the biases we hold, the better chance we have of eradicating them. As older colleagues, we can share wisdom or pieces of advice that were integral to the development of our careers, which will in turn encourage others to do so and pay it forward in the same way. Respect our peers. Unconscious biases work both ways and can be imposed upon older or younger colleagues. Encourage and inspire the women we work with by providing positive or constructive feedback and more opportunities to work together. Choose to mentor younger colleagues. A lot of the biases we hold are based on assumptions and working closely with people gives us a chance to understand people on a different level. Champion the women we work with to others.
All of these will go a long way towards us doing better. At its root I think is authenticity. Being authentic about the challenges, about the bumps in the road and about the fact that the feeling of lack of support is there. Recognition that everyone, whether they are senior lawyers or junior lawyers, is doing their best and at the end of the day we all have the same goal – full participation of women in our profession. Our law will only ever reflect our society when we have full participation of women in our profession.
Kim: As I stated at the beginning, it’s through sharing our past experiences that we can hope to protect future generations of women in law. I know that I would have poured over any advice I could get my hands on when I was a junior lawyer and if, through this forum, we’re able to provide any insight at all to a junior lawyer, or any lawyer for that matter, I say that’s a success.
I know there is so much more we could and would like to discuss but we will leave it there for now. I sincerely thank all of you for joining us in this conversation today and providing such insight on this issue.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Kim Jakeman, QC, is a partner at Harper Grey and – in case this is your first time here – also the co-founder of Life in Law. Not only is Kim a skilled mediator, she also maintains a busy dual practice focused mainly on litigation in the area of medical malpractice, and regulatory work involving professionals facing disciplinary proceedings before a variety of regulatory bodies. Kim is almost as passionate about biking, her new love of surfing, and working out as she is about supporting women in the legal profession. A master of her own balancing act, when Kim isn’t busy with work, she spends coveted time with her family and friends.
Pamela Meneguzzi, B.Sc., LL.B., LL.M. (tax) is a senior counsel with the federal government. Her practice is focused on economic crimes including tax and money laundering. She is active in her community, a regular speaker at conferences on a range of legal issues and has volunteered on numerous boards. Her spare time is spent with her family and friends hiking, biking and paragliding when the winds are just right.
Alexandra Mitretodis is a litigation and dispute resolution lawyer in Vancouver with a practice in class actions, commercial litigation, and arbitration. Alexandra has appeared as counsel before all levels of court in British Columbia, as well as the Federal Court and the Supreme Court of Canada. Alexandra is recognized as a “Future Leader” by Who’s Who Legal Arbitration and a “Rising Star” in dispute resolution by Legal 500. Alexandra also teaches Civil Procedure as an Adjunct Professor at the Peter A. Allard School of Law at The University of British Columbia. Alexandra spends her spare time doing yoga, dancing and traveling.
Dionne is an associate at Harper Grey practicing with the firm’s Health, Insurance, and Aviation Law groups. She advises and represents clients on a variety of matters relating to professional liability, personal injury, human rights, contract, property damage, administrative law, and other dispute resolution matters. Dionne also coaches the Peter A. Allard School of Law Jessup International Law Moot team. When not working, Dionne enjoys spending time with friends and family, plotting out new vacations, and trying new things.
Rose Keith, QC
Rose Keith, QC is associate counsel with Harper Grey. Not only is she a skilled mediator, she also maintains a multi-faceted practice focusing on workplace law assisting both employers and employees. In both realms, she is known for her broad subject matter expertise, legal acumen and sound judgment. Rose is a blur of perpetual motion lending her irrepressible enthusiasm to many different organizations and associations she passionately supports both inside and outside the legal community.