Written by Emily Hazlett
Last winter I took a Spanish class at UQAM. During a break from verb drills, I found myself telling one of my classmates about legal job recruitment, which I was doing at the time. I told him about the endless job interviews in law firms, the cocktails and the dinners. I confessed that I was afraid I might end the process without a job.
He assured me otherwise: “Emily, you’re so smart, I’m sure you’ll get a job. You’re going to be a great legal secretary.”
A few months later I was indeed working for a law firm. One night I left work and grabbed a cab home. The taxi driver looked back at the large impressive building I had just left and asked whether I worked there. I said yes and he seemed pretty impressed. He then asked me what it was like to work for such an important business as a receptionist.
“But you’re so young!” he said, when I told him I wasn’t a receptionist. Then he asked me whether I’d seen the most recent episode of Suits.
The next day after work I told a friend about this encounter. Also an aspiring lawyer, she could relate. The week before she had been asked whether she was a receptionist, not by a taxi driver, but by opposing counsel on a deal she had spent weeks preparing.
Months later I was given a tour of the Court of Appeal of Quebec. I walked the halls and through the courtrooms, thinking how amazing it would be to one day plead before the Court. The judge I was with pointed to a wall lined with photographs of past and present judges, many of them recognizable justices whom I admire. He began telling me about one judge’s swearing-in ceremony, and found the picture on the wall. Two men and a woman stood in the foreground of the picture. Seconds later, I was surprised when he referred to the judge who was sworn in, the judge whose picture I was looking at, as “she.” I’d assumed the judge was one of the men in the picture.
In my experience, sexism isn’t always direct. No one has ever told me I can’t be a lawyer because I’m a woman, but lots of people have assumed I’m not a lawyer, because I’m a woman. Sexism today is often insidious. It’s often based on assumptions, many assumptions that we all, myself included, share.
This has important consequences on how we talk about sexism and engage in discussions about gender equality. By treating all sexism as equally worthy of moral condemnation we make it difficult for people, both men and women, to recognize their own assumptions. If discussions about gender equality are inclusive, candid, and aspirational, rather than punitive, it can make more closeted sexists aware of their own bias.