Women in litigation need to stop tearing each other down // Opinion
On Tuesday March 7th, 2017Print
On Tuesday March 7th, 2017Print
Women in law confront a litany of obstacles. There are the long hours, the combative culture, and the outright sexism of some male colleagues and judges. But, throughout my legal career, I’ve found that the biggest hurdle of all might be this: women are often more ruthless to each other than men.
I launched a criminal-law practice five years ago, and noticed this problem right away. Take one of my first cases: a domestic assault, in which I’d collected solid evidence in my client’s favour. I took it to a female Crown, hoping to strike a deal. What I got was an ultimatum: my client could accept a conditional discharge (which I found unreasonable) or go to trial. The Crown wouldn’t even look at the evidence. She was rude and dismissive, a stark contrast to how I’d seen her treat male defence lawyers. So I approached her colleague, who was a man. He reviewed the evidence and, after doing so, agreed to a peace bond.
Soon after, I had a careless-driving trial. On the day of the trial, the police officer who was set to testify failed to show up. The female Crown refused to withdraw the charges. The lengthy courtroom battle that followed — in which the Crown fought an obviously losing case tooth and nail — could have been mistaken for a murder trial. In the end, the judge dismissed the charge.
Within a year, I left criminal law and started a family practice. When I go up against women in family-law cases, they’re easier to get along with than female Crowns. But a new problem has cropped up: female law clerks and other female court staff.
In one instance, I led an emergency family motion at the courthouse at 47 Sheppard Ave. and the female clerk told me I had to stamp (using her court stamp) every page of the document I was filing. There were hundreds of pages. This was her job — one that she was doing, that very moment, for male lawyers. Such behaviour is the norm.
So why might this be the case? Some of the most recent sociological research suggests that woman-on-woman conflict in the workplace is most common in male-dominated professions. The legal profession in Ontario fits that description: men make up 59 percent of all lawyers and 77 percent of private-practice partners.
The logic is simple enough. When men hold most senior positions, women see their gender as a competitive weakness. In vying for a spot in the boys’ club, then, women avoid group solidarity and treat female colleagues with derision. In short, when women treat women badly, it’s a defence mechanism against discrimination from men.
So let me say this: women don’t need to undermine each other because they think there’s only room at the top for a few alpha females. There’s room for all of us.
But we have to make that room for each other. Treat people the same, regardless of their gender. For my part, I always make a point to mentor young female lawyers. Do the same. Let’s not forget how we united, this winter, at women’s marches around the world. Unity is more important than ever.
I didn’t write this to point fingers or gripe. I want to encourage reflection on this issue. If we help each other out — or, at least, don’t undercut each other — we’ll be better equipped to break that glass ceiling.
This story is from our Spring 2017 issue.
Illustration by Chloe Cushman