voices of women in law // voix des femmes en droit


Written by Anonymous

This is my junior lawyer, but don’t worry she’s smart.”

“This is my junior lawyer, but don’t worry she got one of the highest scores at the Barreau.”

“This is my junior lawyer, but don’t worry she works hard.”

These are some of the many ways I am introduced by my boss. I cringe every time my status as a lawyer is qualified, because it is accompanied by a female body. Yet no one else seems to notice these qualifiers.

This female body, and the way it was socialized female, is a concern for my boss and for this profession. In order to be a good lawyer, I am told, I must not smile or nod or do anything resembling feminine habits of social interaction. In his attempts to “make a good lawyer out of me,” my boss has punished my female habits of nodding or smiling with hand slaps, frowns of disapproval and verbal reprimands. I have yet to see a male colleague verbally or physically reprimanded for smiling or nodding, but they are lawyers — no qualifier needed.

In the wake of serious sexual assault allegations against Bill Cosby and Jian Ghomeshi, I have wondered about my toxic workplace environment. While I have not been assaulted, I have definitely experienced my share of gendered harassment. I see the analogies to these other situations: the perpetrator was my boss, there are witnesses, and people know that women in my office are being mistreated. Unfortunately, I am not alone. In fact, all female lawyers I know have experienced various degrees and amounts of gendered harassment.

What is it about the legal culture, even in human rights firms, that still does not recognize, or does not want to recognize, the gendered nature of this profession and the impact it has on women working and living in it?

I was shocked to hear in my year-end review that people found that I was demotivated, lacked passion and did not show enough initiative (three things that I had never heard used to describe me). Sadly, I did not have the courage (or rather a safe space) to express the fact that these are symptoms of a toxic workplace, a workplace where women are devalued, harassed and discouraged.

Not only does the victim get blamed for the effects of the harassment, but she cannot present her side or suggest the root causes of these issues. If I did, I’m afraid it would only add to my list of faults; I would be overly sensitive, or not cut out for the legal world.

I do not write this to scare female law students. I write this to warn, empower, create dialogue, and shift the legal culture. Both men and women are responsible for this shift. Both need to be able to identify when women are being mistreated and undervalued. It may be strange to some, but many people do not know they are the victim of harassment — it can be subtle and creative. After all, a workplace is loaded with “normal” power dynamics, especially in the hierarchical world of law. Some of us do not want to admit that we are experiencing harassment, as if admitting that we are the victims of something that we have no control over is our fault or evidence that we cannot make it in law.

However, the symptoms of this harassment may be easier to recognize. If you or a colleague are lacking motivation, passion, or any other of the qualities she entered the workplace with, it is a sign that the culture at the workplace needs to be critically assessed.

We have all heard of all the women who leave the profession and I have no doubt, as I myself am searching for an escape route, that this insidious and pervasive gendered harassment is a large part of the problem. So, instead of blaming the bright and hardworking woman for not performing, we need to ask what is getting in the way of her performance, what might be weighing her down and impeding an otherwise qualified lawyer.

We need to look critically at our profession and address these issues. Until this profession undergoes a drastic cultural shift, all lawyers must recognize gendered harassment and speak up against it.

Contours is made possible by funding from the McGill Law Students’ Association / L’Association des étudiant-e-s en droit de McGill. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in whole or in part without permission from the authors.

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