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Ottawa U launches women’s mentorship program

|Written By Sasha Toten
Ottawa U launches women’s mentorship program
Ethics commissioner Mary Dawson helped launch the new mentorship program. Photo: Devanne O''Brien

“Women are not all the same, and there is room for all of us,” Mary Dawson, Canada’s conflict of interest and ethics commissioner, told University of Ottawa law students at the launch of its new women’s legal mentorship program.

The program, which combines peer, academic, and professional mentorship, as well as professional skills development, was co-founded by nine U of O law students to create a collaborative and supportive feminist network of mentors.

There is no other legal mentorship program in Ontario that integrates peer-to-peer mentorship, student-lawyer mentorship, professional development, and skills workshops focused on empowering women in the early stages of their careers.

While the peer mentorship component of the program began in September, the official launch was held on Oct. 4. It pairs first-year law students with second-years, second-years with third-years, and third-years with articling students. The student-lawyer aspect of the program will be unveiled in late November and the professional development segment will begin in the winter term.

At the event, Dawson reflected on her career as a female lawyer and milestones that women have reached over the past 40 years. She said there is a special bond among women that allows them to work collaboratively. “We’re there for each other when the going gets tough.”

Dawson managed the Supreme Court reference on same-sex marriage for the Government of Canada and completed the final draft for the patriation package of the Constitution Act. She spoke of her experience as the first lawyer in the Department of Justice to have a child and take a reduced workload. She assured the audience that the old saying, “When a woman works, the baby dies,” is far from true.

Firing a woman because she’s married or pregnant is no longer legal as it was well into the 20th century. Although the number of women graduating from law school continues to increase, a 2009 change-of-status survey by the Ontario Bar Association found that 38 per cent of lawyers in private practice are women, and 60 per cent of those who changed their status were women. It is this trend that the women’s program is seeking to reverse.

“[T]he WLMP embraces all feminist viewpoints and is focused on both empowering women and reversing the trend of women leaving the practice of law in droves,” said Charlotte Wolters, a co-founder of the program.

Although the program is just getting off the ground, the student response has been overwhelming. “We’ve already eclipsed our three-year benchmark and have a waiting list for the first stage of our program,” said Wolters.

“Currently we’re looking for lawyers across Ontario interested in mentoring students. We believe a comprehensive approach to mentorship will set the foundation for a positive shift, and in 10 years the reports of women leaving legal practice will not be written.”

Sasha Toten is a second-year student at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law. For more information on the women’s legal mentorship program, contact general.wlmp@gmail.com.

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