For Women in Law By Women in Law

Guest Blogger, Pamela Meneguzzi, Senior Counsel, shares her unified theory of how women can succeed and thrive in long happy careers in law.

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I have been practicing law since 1992. I worked at private law firms in Toronto and Vancouver and for the B.C. provincial and Canadian federal governments. I have had rewarding work that felt important in the moment and challenged me to solve interesting legal, practical and policy problems. I have worked on multi-disciplinary teams with accountants, entrepreneurs, medical professionals, police, scientists, educators, developers, politicians and others. Looking back, I remember clearly many outstanding women I worked with and for. What made them great?

I have been told, anecdotally, there are more complaints made against women in leadership roles in law than against men. I would not be surprised if that was true. Traditional leadership styles don’t conform to most cultural notions of a woman’s role. When we see someone acting in a way that doesn’t match our subconscious expectations, it rubs us the wrong way and we judge that person as doing something wrong. Hillary Clinton’s book, “What Happened?”, is a good review of the shots women take on the rise to power.

Every criticism is a judgment that has two sides. For example, women are criticized as too strong (or rigid) when they are firm, and too soft when they yield. Rigid – implies the person has taken a position and isn’t yielding when expected to. Firm – implies that a person has made a decision that should be respected. One judgment has a positive connotation and one negative. The adjective chosen reflects bias. Women who lead and succeed embody all the qualities of leadership, but they have done more than that. They have found a way that navigates the challenges of subconscious bias that tends to judge women negatively when we show either stereotypical male qualities or stereotypical female qualities. This is detailed in 8 Essential Qualities That Define Great Leadership by Kimberly Fries and 10 Basic Leadership Qualities by Tony Robbins.

Recently I’ve noticed something starting to happen at the ground level that may make tomorrow’s work environment (and world) better for every woman. Women are starting to make communities of women to talk about work and life issues. To share experiences. To support each other and to problem solve together. These groups are the engines of culture change.

I am in a group of professional women. The criteria for being in this group is that you have a high pressure job and are a mom. This group of women work in a wide range of fields (law, engineering, medicine, finance, planning) and our kids range in age from elementary school to university. It is an incredible privilege to listen to each other and share our journeys. There are so many common experiences and so much wisdom.

As a result of my work experience, and the outstanding community of women I know, I have developed, and now offer, my theory for greater success for women and happiness for all:

1. Be a friend to women 

“A friend is someone who says nice things about you when you aren’t around.”

There are some fantastic articles that show this is a first step to success, for example Shelley Zalis’ Power Of The Pack: Women Who Support Women Are More Successful.

Here’s a challenge: Take an inventory of the women around you. Class them mentally as friend, neutral, obstacle. Ask yourself are you (consistently) being a friend to these women?

For women standing in your way, can you find a friend who can help turn them on to the unified theory for women’s success.

For the neutral, is there opportunity to be a friend (authentically)?

I have found my community of women to be a big plus. I encourage you to find or develop a group that fits you. It’s worth it. Women who support each other are happier and more successful.

2. Be proactive in asking for gender fair references

A standard measure of career success and progress is size of paycheque. But most people aren’t really motivated by pay as explained by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic in his article, Does Money Really Affect Motivation? A Review of the Research. A broader concept of success is great work, in a great work environment, with great rewards.

Getting new and more interesting work, additional rewards (money, time, etc.) or a better environment often comes with promotions, role changes or new work places. Sometimes we get lucky, and our job grows with us without having to apply for a new position, but often an application and a reference is needed.

Studies of reference letters show that letters for women emphasize our efforts, not our accomplishments. They refer to our personalities, are short on descriptions of our technical skills and are overall shorter than for men.

Why not get familiar with the qualities of a gender fair reference letter, and share this with whomever you ask for a reference. They likely aren’t aware. You will personally benefit and we will see more women moving up to leadership and influencer roles. Click here for some tips on how to avoid gender bias when writing a reference letter.

3. Refer each other to get good work

This is so important.

We have a long way to go before women are on an even playing field for choice work and recognition. Women need to see opportunities for each other and put each other up for great contracts, projects, promotions and jobs.

I have recently watched a colleague swim against the stream. She recruited women lawyers to present at a conference. She didn’t dip into the usual pool. She offered the opportunity to a new slate of lawyers and balanced the women and men speakers.

I encourage you to look for opportunities wherever you can. Your karma and career will be rewarded.

About the Author  

Pamela Meneguzzi, B.Sc., LL.B., LL.M. (tax) is a senior counsel with the federal government. She is active in her community, a regular speaker at conferences on a range of legal issues and has volunteered on numerous boards.


Women Leaders and Leadership issues:

Reference letter bias:

It’s important to keep balance in your life and range of interests. One of my favourite writers and podcasters is Canadian Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell’s mission combines offering a fresh look at history and expounding unified theories of life, the universe, and well everything. I love reading and listening to him. If you don’t know Gladwell, I hope you will look him up.

Malcolm Gladwell:

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference   (2000)

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking  (2005)

Outliers: The Story of Success   (2008)

What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures   (2009)

David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants   (2013)

Talking To Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know   (2019)

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