Pausing to Reflect, but Not to Rest

Yesterday was Equal Pay Day in the United States, and while the statistics released by the Pew Research Centre on the pay gap between men and women in the U.S. showed progress in shrinking the gap over time, the evidence overall revealed a persistent difference.

Last month, on the day before International Women’s Day, the federal government announced seven judicial appointments. Only one of the appointees is a woman.

It is challenging to keep from becoming frustrated with a plodding pace of change that sometimes feels like one step forward, two steps back. I know I am not alone in this, and that the same frustration was expressed in the 1993 Touchstones for Change Report:

Women are under-represented on almost every court in Canada, both in terms of the proportion of women in the population and the proportion of women in the legal profession.’ Although there has been progress in the last several years, the pace of change in federal appointments has been modest. Approximately 12 % of the federally-appointed judges and 13% of the provincially appointed judges are women.’ One study has suggested that it will take nearly half a century for women to achieve equity in representation at the existing rate!’[i]

A few days after International Women’s Day, the Manitoba Bar Association’s Equality Section held a continuing professional development program looking at progress made toward gender diversity in the legal profession in Manitoba in the 20+ years since the Touchstones report was issued.

Panel members from a wide range of legal backgrounds spoke frankly about their own experiences as women in the legal profession.

Panel members Judge Carena Roller of Manitoba’s Provincial Court, Dean Lorna Turnbull of University of Manitoba’s Law School , Brenlee Carrington-Trepel, Equity Ombudsperson for the Law Society of Manitoba, and Allison Fenske of Thompson Dorfman Sweatman LLP, noted progress has been made in a number of areas:

  • Manitoba’s Provincial Court has achieved gender-balance
  • Law schools are seeing increased diversity in their student bodies
  • Manitoba’s newly initiated Justicia Project has had a strong start with 11 law firms representing 59% of the province’s private practice bar participating
  • Lawyers with family responsibilities are asking for and obtaining scheduling accommodation from the Manitoba Provincial Court.

But there was also consensus among the group that despite the steps forward, the vision for equality set out in the Touchstones report has not yet been fully realized.

Dean Turnbull commented that some change has come as a result of women adapting and bending to fit the structure of the profession, rather than the profession accommodating their circumstances. She noted that this same tension was noted in the Touchstones report as well:

Is the nature of the work fixed and immutable, so that lawyers must adapt to it or exit from the profession? Or, on the other hand, are we willing to examine current arrangements for legal work with a view to adapting the work, where possible, to accommodate the needs and interests of lawyers, many of whom wish to participate in both meaningful work and family life?’ The significant costs of women’s accommodation to a profession that was not structured to reflect their needs are obvious .The imperative for the tables to be turned and for the profession to accommodate women is fundamental to the achievement of gender equality. A “reformation of the partnership of the profession” is required. [ii]

There is clear evidence of progress towards greater gender balance in the profession, but as one audience member pointed out, the panel’s discussion focused solely on the issues of white women of privilege. The additional obstacles of bias and discrimination faced by racialized, economically disadvantaged and other marginalized men and women in the profession were not addressed. Until these barriers are also removed, we cannot rest in our efforts toward a more balanced and diverse legal profession.

[i] Touchstones for Change Report, Canadian Bar Association, 1993, p.186.

[ii] Ibid., p. 268.

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