See Something, Say Something, Do Something
Dear LiL: As a male lawyer, how can I be an ally for my female colleagues and be part of the solution instead of part of the problem when it comes to gender-based discrimination in the legal profession?
We all need allies. For far too long, women’s issues were just those – issues that belonged to and could therefore only be solved by women. While much of the work in this area has been done by women’s organizations, together with some female advocates who have been trailblazers in our profession, the fact is that a collective effort is required to reduce and, ultimately eradicate gender-based discrimination.
Unfortunately, there is no one magic solution. It has been a problem of long-standing duration for a reason, including that its origins are in our broader culture. Stereotypes about men and women begin at childhood in playrooms; it is not that surprising, therefore, that we would see those stereotypes spill into classrooms, and then boardrooms and courtrooms. So, what can men do to break down some of these stereotypes and be better allies? Three words: speak, act and normalize.
Education about not being a bystander is common in our elementary schools and yet it remains an issue in our workplaces. Far too often, discrimination of some form happens and women and men alike say nothing. The behaviour is reinforced and perpetuated. One reason for saying nothing may be that the behaviour may seem, on its face, to be benign. Take for example the common request that someone in a meeting take notes. How often is it the woman who is asked? The stereotype of woman as “secretary”, whose role it is to record the important conversations of others is reinforced. While that may seem innocuous at first, the person who is taking notes is often less likely to voice opinions and participate; their role is to record.
It can be very difficult to speak in those circumstances. Sometimes, the person who made the request is simply unaware of their unconscious bias. Drawing it to their attention publicly may be unnecessarily embarrassing for them. There is nothing wrong with raising the issue privately after the meeting to ensure that it does not happen again. Or, better yet, as a male ally, offer to take the notes. A simple “Actually, I’ll take the notes today, and we can take turns going forward” will suffice. That action of making it clear that it isn’t “woman’s work” speaks volumes.
Sometimes the behaviour is quite obvious. “Jokes” in or around the workplace or unwanted remarks about appearances should all be addressed, and rejected, in the moment. Being a good ally means taking those steps to call out unacceptable behaviour at the time, and has the positive effect of causing everyone who heard the comment or joke to reflect on its inappropriateness.
And, sometimes, the best thing that a male ally can do is not speak at all. Unfortunately, study after study demonstrates that women in boardrooms are talked over or ignored when speaking. Attribution of ideas to a male colleague, even when raised first by a female colleague, still continues. Being a male ally means providing space for women to express themselves and for their ideas to be recognized. That will sometimes require men to hold back on their own views and resist speaking, at least until the views of a female colleague are fully expressed and explored. And, if another male colleague seems to be credited when credit is not due, then use your voice to be the one to “clarify” whose work product or idea is actually being discussed.
Throughout my career, I have been very fortunate to have been in a law firm where I was given a considerable amount of opportunity. Male allies supported women by putting them before clients in meetings, and giving them substantial arguments in court. The generational impact of years of advancing men means that we are still in a profession where men are more likely to be in a position to have work to give on files, in presentations, or as leaders. If you’re in that position, ensure that women are given their opportunities to shine. In doing so, don’t make assumptions as to what women might be interested in, unless and until that has been fully explored. Acting in a manner consistent with actually wanting to advance women is one of the best ways to be an ally.
When we speak about “women’s issues” in the workplace, we tend to focus on pregnancy and then childcare responsibilities. Women are presumed to have the primary child caring responsibility. In reality, that’s not always the case. Increasingly, among my heterosexual colleagues, my female colleagues are the primary breadwinners of their family, occasionally with their male partners electing to stay home with their children. In addition, increasingly male associates and young partners with children are taking on those childcare responsibilities. This should be encouraged. Normalizing that both men and women have childcare responsibilities changes the narrative from childcare being a woman’s issue to being everyone’s issue.
Unfortunately, so long as it is presumed that women are the only ones with family responsibilities, it will also be presumed that they cannot work the same hours, participate in the same marketing and business development opportunities, or be as committed to their clients. While that may be true, it isn’t always the case. If we normalize child or family care to being a responsibility that affects men and women alike, these presumptions, which hold back the career advancement of women, will be undermined. The less that this is a women’s issue and is normalized across the profession, the less that this will be an issue at all.
It is highly unlikely that we will ever eradicate gender discrimination. However, the likelihood of significant improvements is heightened if we have male allies who take their opportunities to speak, act and normalize.
About the Author
Cynthia Kuehl is a senior Partner with Lerners LLP. A seasoned litigator with a skill set honed from years of actual on-her-feet experience and a common sense approach to problem-solving, Cynthia practices in a wide range of areas, including commercial litigation and arbitration, appellate advocacy, public and administrative law, professional regulation and health law. She has appeared as lead counsel at trials, applications, arbitrations and on appeals, and has litigated before every level of court including the Supreme Court of Canada. In addition to her leadership roles at the firm, she has been and continues to be an active leader in the legal and larger community.