It was never really about the couches. Sure, the women’s robing room at Osgoode Hall — where lawyers gown to appear at the Court of Appeal for Ontario — looked like it was cobbled together from some grandmother’s castoffs, complete with a matching set of rose-splattered loveseats. But Breanna Needham’s frustration with the cramped space was about access, not aesthetics. “It sends a message that we might not be here to stay, or there won’t be enough of us to need more space,” says the third-year associate at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP. And when male lawyers go off to discuss cases in their country-club quarters, with a sizable lounge, “exclusion might not be the intention, but it is the effect.”
This wasn’t a new complaint. Half a century ago, Judy LaMarsh, a lawyer and future Liberal MP, caused a furor when she attempted to gown in the men’s robing room. But as the number of women in law rose, this inequality remained. So in early February, Needham typed out a change.org petition on her phone. (“Very millennial of me,” says the 31-year-old.) In it, she called for the men’s robing room to be transformed into a gender-neutral space, where female, transgender and non-binary lawyers would now be welcome.
Needham thought maybe 25 people would sign. “I’ve had lawyers, including senior women lawyers, tell me they don’t want to touch gender, diversity or inclusion issues, because it’s too high-risk,” she says. Instead, over just a few days, her petition racked up nearly 900 signatures. “Breanna has been involved in all aspects of equity: race, religion, sexuality, disability, gender identity,” says Omar Ha-Redeye, the executive director of the Durham Community Legal Clinic and an early ally of her campaign. “It’s why so many people were so willing to engage.”
That engagement compelled the Law Society of Ontario to act. On February 20, it announced the men’s robing room would become gender neutral. (The women’s room remains, though its “Lady Barristers” sign is gone.) Six months and a few tweaks later — full-length stalls were added, so lawyers can change in private; the bank of urinals was removed — the unisex space opened at Osgoode Hall. “Hopefully this signals that women and diverse lawyers are here to stay,” says Needham. “And that we can and will make positive advances beyond a robing room.”
This story is from our Winter 2019 Issue.