The Double Glass Ceiling

Author: Nhi Huynh Guest Blogger

Law schools are starting to look more like a mosaic of people from different backgrounds. Private law firms? Not so much. This is especially true when we look at the senior positions at these firms.[1] Whatever diversity we see in the entry points of these companies decreases dramatically when we look at the older cohorts.[2] The residual effects of a time when the legal profession was only governed by white males explains merely part of these concerning statistics. There exists a double glass ceiling – one for women and one for racialized minorities. The intersectionality of race and gender shows that racialized women barely make up a sliver of the percentage of legal partners or aged legal professionals.[3] There are many factors that explain the discrepancy, where family priorities and a lack of work-life balance paint part of the representation. However, examining a different part of the picture may prove to be useful in starting to crack the double glass ceiling. A collective and individual look at the abstract concepts of misperception, credit-giving, and “fit” demonstrates how these translate into systemic barring behaviours that keep racialized women out of positions of power.

There tend to be many misperceptions that lead to women being inadvertently unwelcome in legal positions of power. In general, society sees women as having “taking care” skills, whereas men are characterized as having “taking charge” competences that are more suited toward leadership roles.[4] If a woman takes on these more “masculine” traits,[5] she runs the risk of being seen as “bossy” rather than the “boss”. Since the legal community is so small, women may not want to challenge other people’s biases, especially since biases are hard to prove. Specifically, women may wish to avoid coming across as troublemakers for challenging the status quo. On an individual level, women, particularly racialized women, may not be comfortable with being in power. This may stem from the misperception that power itself involves domination or oppression.[6] Since these groups have been historically oppressed, they may feel uncomfortable assuming a superior role if they perceive power to be a domineering tool rather than a problem-solving tool.[7] If we can overcome these collective and individual misperceptions, racialized women may feel freer to demonstrate their full competencies and leadership abilities without the fear of being labelled as “controlling”.

The concept of credit-giving, particularly the lack thereof, is also important when examining why the double glass ceiling exists for racialized women. Female lawyers and professors have described to me two common scenarios. First, a lawyer who was the only woman (she was also a minority) at her firm expressed there were times when her ideas were overlooked by her superiors, only to have male colleagues get “good answer” whenever they responded similarly. Second, a female professor stated that others attributed her successful cases to luck, whereas male lawyers would get a pat on the back for a job well done. Although others may not give women credit by overlooking or misattributing the good work that they do, women may internalize this and also act accordingly. One professor mentioned that women generally need to feel overqualified for a job before they apply for the position, whereas men are more comfortable applying for something even if they are not fully qualified. Credit-giving is important because it acknowledges the competences that are there and cultivates opportunities for skill-stretching. If women, especially racialized women, are being overlooked by others or themselves, it robs them of the opportunity to grow within a firm.

Finally, “fit” is a concept that explains the systemic barring behaviours that keep racialized women out of positions of power. “Fit” means that you have a place in the firm because they like you and relate to you; after all, people spend a lot of time working with their colleagues. On its face, the fit of a law firm seems neutral and harmless enough. However, a blue puzzle piece placed in a red puzzle will not fit. One fits into a firm by being similar to the rest of the firm. Historically and even currently, the rest of the firm in private practice consists mainly of white males.[8] Thus, even if one has the right credentials, the concept of fit tells us that firms are looking beyond merit. Collectively, homogeneous structures are prone to stagnation and are out of touch with our heterogeneous society. Individually, it is hard for racialized women to demonstrate that they have a place in private firms when their experiences may vastly differ from those that interview them (most likely white and/or male based on statistics). Racialized women will not be afforded upwards mobility in a firm if the concept of “fit” prohibits their access at first instance.

A potential remedial measure for the lack of racialized women in private law firms may be to implement assertiveness workshops and mandatory diversity workshops. The assertiveness workshops would target women, especially those that are racialized, as they may not be experienced in exercising firmness. Women are socialized to take up little space, and in many cultures women are not afforded a true voice of their own. Assertiveness workshops may give these women the practical skills they need to build confidence, promote their competencies, and reaffirm the idea that it is alright for them to celebrate their wins. Mandatory diversity workshops for all law students and lawyers would complement the assertiveness workshops well. Mandatory diversity workshops would expose (future) lawyers to different backgrounds, allowing them to examine diverse experiences more deeply while learning the value of the various insights that come from these experiences. We may come to appreciate a different framing of “fit”, and see that what is missing from a law firm may just be exactly what the law firm needs. Puzzles remain static; mosaics can expand.

It is important that racialized women have positions of power and are better represented in law firms, because many potential clients will be racialized persons and/or women. These clients may want someone they can relate to who may understand their needs better because of a shared background. If we do not correct our misperceptions, our lack of credit-giving, and the reality of the law firm notion of “fit” on an individual and collective level, we will continue to promote a legal structure and barring behaviours that exclude racialized women. What is truly concerning is that our “cream of the crop” may be discounting those that are actually capable of rising to the top.


[1] Michael Ornstein, “Racialization and Gender of Lawyers in Ontario: A Report for the Law Society of Upper Canada” (Toronto: The Law Society of Upper Canada, 2010) at ii.

[2] Ibid at i, ii.

[3] Ibid at 20.

[4] Ida Abbott, “How Political Dynamics Undermine Gender Balance in Law Firm Leadership and What Your Firm Must Do About It”, online: Ida Abbott Consulting <http://www.idaabbott.com>

[5] Ibid.

[6] Linda Robertson, “Women Lawyers: Embracing Power” Slaw (6 December 2012), online: Slaw <http:///www.slaw.ca>.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Constance Backhouse, “Gender and Race in the Construction of “Legal Professionalism”: Historical Perspectives” (Paper delivered at the First Colloquium on the Legal Profession, University of Western Ontario, London, ON, 20 October 2003).

The author is a first year student at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law and wrote the essay for Professor Dodek’s course on Legal Ethics.

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