Written by Frankie Barnet
The number of female lawyers in Canada today is at an all-time high, with women-identifying students now outranking their male counterparts in law schools across the country. But while your faculty or workplace might revel in touting these sorts of statistics come International Women’s Day, it’s important to remember that demographic shifts don’t necessarily lead to immediate cultural improvements.
Today, more and more young women may even find themselves cringing at the idea of something like International Women’s Day, having grown cynical from diversity initiatives that either seem to begin and end with lip service or, worse, replicate the same power hierarchies that they claim to oppose. Toxicity in a pantsuit, anyone?
But just when we start to think of gender discrimination in the abstract—as the type of thing that happened in our mothers’ generation but no more—one demeaning look in court, one instance of being mistaken for a caterer at a party, one jab at your upcoming maternity leave, can send us reeling. We know that it’s backwards, ignorant, and even laughable, but that doesn’t mean it stings any less.
SLOUCHING TOWARDS EQUALITY
Saba Ahmad, a solo litigator in Toronto, recalls receiving eye-rolls in court when she, at the time visibly pregnant, requested to schedule a trial to avoid her due date. “The profession is a masculine space,” she says. “A place designed for someone without parenting responsibilities, often to maximize billable hours.”
Ahmad clarified, “I want to be clear: the law is not a predominantly hostile place for me, as a woman of colour. I have great clients and many great interactions with courts and opposing counsel. But every now and again, something toxic happens, leaving me with a feeling of cognitive dissonance as I check my calendar to confirm what year it is.”
When asked about the source of the problem, Ahmad says, “sometimes judges have expectations based on their own, unrepresentative experiences as men from big firms, maybe with stay-at-home wives.” In fact, according to a 2019 report by the CBC, just 492 of Canada’s 1,193 (41%) federally appointed judges are women.1
Illustrating the complexity and interconnectedness of the specter of macho litigation, Ahmad describes how, when a judge puts pressure on her to speed along a process with a transcriptionist or expert witness, she’s expected to pass along that same pressure. “But I’d feel ridiculous playing the aggressive, Bay Street, male head of litigation, demanding next day transcripts. I can’t do that.”
“One solution is to continue to diversify the bench and hope that trickles down,” says Ahmad. “But what I find in the trenches is that it's often male lawyers who take advantage of the changing culture. After that eye-roll, I have been uncomfortable raising parenting responsibilities in court or to opposing counsel. I don’t want to appear weak or risk being dismissed. Meanwhile, men seem unafraid and are in fact applauded when they bring up family responsibilities. It’s great if they’re actually using that time to reduce inequality in the home, but I find it discouraging to read studies suggesting that those responsibilities are still not equally divided, as they are in my own home.”
However, Ahmad adds that her vulnerability in the courtroom stems not only from her gender or race, but also her position as a solo practitioner, without the backing of a large firm. “Especially in the beginning,” she recalls, when some cases (which went on to win) were treated as frivolous by defendants who didn’t take her seriously. She noted that defendants weren’t dismissive when her demands were written on letterhead from Bay Street or Wall Street firms.
“I was an activist before I even knew what the word meant.”
But the law, for Ahmad, is more than just a job. She serves as Chair of an environmental charity, providing legal guidance in that role, and sits on the board of a transit advocacy organization, among other volunteer work. “I was an activist before I even knew what the word meant. When I was young, I also loved the energy of live theater and would have pursued a career in production, if I could find a way to connect it to justice. Today, I continue to tell stories, but my audience is the judge and my goal isn’t to entertain, but to persuade. I need the judge to like my story better than the other lawyer’s.”
(SAVING) THE WIDE SARGASSO SEA
Kyra Bell-Pasht was also drawn to law from a sense of activism and moral responsibility. “What motivates me,” she says, “has always been a combination of wanting to work in the public interest and make a positive impact.” After volunteering for Red Cross workshops on international humanitarian law during her undergrad at King’s College, she found that the legal system “had some really interesting opportunities for protecting humanity.”
Upon graduation, however, the job market had different ideas. Bell-Pasht recalls, “it was extraordinarily difficult to find opportunities to do the kind of work I was passionate about. I worked so hard to just be able to volunteer: emailed, called, forced my way into an environmental legal clinic as a volunteer, then got an articling position due to a chance last-minute resignation.”
During her time at Canada Environmental Law Association (“CELA”, the sole environmental legal aid clinic that exists in Ontario), Bell-Pasht notes that she primarily worked with other women. “In my experience,” she describes, “having more female representation means more respect for work-life balance, but this comes with its own costs. The women I worked with took pay cuts as a result of that. The field is chronically underfunded.”
As her time progressed at CELA, Bell-Pasht began to shift her focus to environmental law reform projects, a process that saw her meeting with people drafting new laws and providing input into these regulations at an early stage. “What I kept seeing,” she says, “Is that where there was more of an impact to be made was in writing the law versus changing it once it's in place.”
“Find three lawyers that have jobs that you could see yourself doing. Meet with them, shadow them, even find a job in their offices. Try to bust any preconceived notions about what being a lawyer really means.”
Bell-Pasht ended up leaving law and taking a job as an advisor at the Environment Commission of Ontario, a decision she’s never looked back on: “I don’t regret my time in law but I didn’t find it was an effective channel to protect the public interest.” (For the record, when asked if she found the law an effective tool to make positive change, Saba Ahmad says unequivocally and enthusiastically, “Yes— but those cases don’t pay the bills.”) Bell-Pasht now works as a sustainability consultant, advising municipal governments across Canada and the U.S. on their net-zero plans.
“What I’d say to my younger self thinking of going to law school,” she reflects, “is to find three lawyers that have jobs that you could see yourself doing. Meet with them, shadow them, even find a job in their offices. Try to bust any preconceived notions about what being a lawyer really means.” The idea is to take a sober look at the culture you’ll be entering and the type of work you’ll be doing. “Though to be honest,” she adds, “looking back, even with what I know now, I'm not sure I would have chosen a different path.”
HOW SHOULD A LAWYER BE?
For Portia Larlee, an articling student at an immigration and refugee law firm in Toronto, studying law was also a natural progression of her activism and commitment to social justice. Larlee is a former social worker, whose work with Indigenous children and families in Northern B.C. was often thwarted, she felt, by immense structural problems within a system that seemed to inadvertently work against her clients instead of for them.
“In law,” Larlee says, “you come against structural problems too, but with law, you can really make significant changes for people on an individual level. For example, during my second year at the University of Ottawa, I volunteered at a clinic combating tickets for poverty-related crimes—trespassing, loitering, for example—and while it may seem small on the systemic level, it makes a huge difference. In one case, a man was saved $20,000 in provincial fines. But I also learned how rare this can be. Though the tickets were usually easily withdrawn, the judges were often surprised to see that these people even had representation.”
Today, Larlee works mainly with refugees: “We have a lot of clients whose claims have been refused in the past, so we’re appealing decisions and applying for judicial reviews in federal court, often on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. It’s meaningful work because there’s a sense of responsibility for being trusted with people’s stories."
Like Bell-Pasht, Larlee emphasizes that she feels lucky to work in a supportive environment of predominantly other women. Though, she admits, “they do tell me to stop apologizing so much.” Finally, she encapsulates the sentiment of many young women today in regards to our male counterparts, not of fear, anxiety, or even subordination, but sheer wonderment: “It surprises me how confident even the most mediocre men are. They don’t struggle with the same issues as we do, worrying all the time. Even my boyfriend, who’s the least patriarchal man I know, is totally confident!”
What if we started looking at diversity differently? Afterall, anyone who’s ever had their own personality knows that people tend to bring more to the table than just their outward appearances.
A FIRM OF ONE’S OWN
There’s nothing revolutionary about saying that lawyers in Canada should reflect the population that they serve. Come March 8, we’re encouraged to think of diversity in terms of gender—and there’s nothing wrong with that. Despite the enormous gains Canadian women have made in the workplace, there’s still some ways to go. Women continue to earn less than men for doing the same work, an average of $19,000 less annually, to be exact, according to a 2020 study by the Counsel Network and the Canadian Corporate Counsel Association. None of this factors in the unpaid labor women are more likely to perform either, like domestic or childcare related work, which, as we can see from Saba Ahmad’s experience, can later be used against them in the professional sphere.
But what if we started looking at diversity differently? Afterall, anyone who’s ever had their own personality knows that people tend to bring more to the table than just their outward appearances. This year, let’s acknowledge how Canadian women working in law bring us so much more than encouraging statistics. They bring us their experiences: as mothers, as activists, as type-As, Hufflepuffs, neurotics, and everything in between. After all, no matter how skeptical we may feel about the holiday today, its origins are worth remembering: the first official National Woman’s Day was held in New York City on February 28, 1909, as a joint effort between suffragist and socialist groups. “It is true that a woman’s duty is centered in her home and motherhood,” said the writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman, in words that start out comically outdated, then reach into the 21st century with startling clarity, “[but] home should mean the whole country, and not be confined to three or four rooms or a city or a state.”2
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Frankie Barnet lives in Montreal and is the author of An Indoor Kind of Girl.