It has been more than a decade since the Law Society of Ontario voted to enhance the retention and advancement of women, and some candidates for bencher say it’s time to tackle the issue again.
Voter turnout in the bencher election is consistently lower among female-identifying licensees: In 1987, turnout was 58.4 per cent among men and 44.04 per cent among women, and by 2015, turnout was 35.7 per cent among men and 31.3 per cent among women, the law society’s election results said. Women and gender -on-conforming candidates also appear to represent less than half of this year’s candidates.
The Law Society of Ontario did not provide a gendered breakdown by deadline.
Still, Guelph, Ont.-based lawyer Andrea Clarke, who is running in the April 30 election for the law society’s new board, says women’s issues are a central part of her election platform. She recalled appearing in court five days after giving birth.
“I’m a mother of three young boys, all under the age of five. I’m a sole practitioner and I see the challenges for women,” says Clarke. “We’ve done so well for attracting more women to the profession over the years, which is fantastic, but it’s the retention of these women. The attrition rates are high. . . . I’d love to see a greater support system and network. For a lot of women, particularly in solo practices, if you’re going on maternity leave, it just doesn’t make sense to return.”
A law society working group recommended in 2008 that the LSO adopt a multi-year pilot project called the The Justicia Project, which got the support of 75 law firms, to support the retention of women in private practice. In addition to toolkits and guides to help retain women in the profession, the project spawned the Parental Leave Assistance Program, which gives new parents $750 a week for up to 12 weeks if they are eligible.
The project came on the heels of a report that found managing partners of firms were “overwhelmingly aware” that their firms were losing women in disproportionate numbers. As of 2014, The Justicia Project’s website said that while women accounted for more than 50 per cent of Ontario law graduates, they were less than 35 per cent of lawyers and about 20 per cent of all partners in law firms.
There are still issues facing lawyers who are women or gender-non-conforming, candidates such as Clarke say. She said she would like to see the law society’s existing mentorship program expanded to helping women and mothers collaborate on issues such as co-ordinating parental leave.
“It’s important that the benchers are truly representative of those that they speak on behalf of. So it is important that you have mothers, you have sole practitioners . . . if you want to ensure policies are challenged or are clearly thought through,” says Clarke. “There has been progress over the years, but there still needs to be quite a bit more.”
In the last half of 2018, 61 per cent of complaints to the law society’s Discrimination and Harassment Counsel were made by women, a Feb. 28 report to Convocation said. At a March 6 event at the LSO celebrating International Women's Day, a panel lamented the lack of women entrepreneurs in legal technology companies.
Social media debates among lawyers have targeted issues such as dress codes and an article suggesting women may not desire careers like law where they “must start early, work very hard, and make many sacrifices.” After an online campaign about disparate robing areas in courthouses, the law society on Feb. 20 said it would implement a gender-neutral robing area in Osgoode Hall.
Lawyers have also played a role in addressing these issues in other professions over the past year, amid landmark 2018 lawsuits around pay equity from the Supreme Court of Canada and Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario.
Shalini Konanur, executive director and lawyer at South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario, who is running for bencher, says that, while the conversation has opened on issues such as the unisex barrister’s room, there are still larger issues for benchers to confront. She says the law society also plays “a huge role” in issues such as diversity on the bench and improving data collection. The province said in 2017 it would work with the law society to improve diversity in judicial appointments.
“I think the law society could be doing a bit more on this issue — they’ve had little bit too much of a piecemeal approach to it,” says Konanur. “The glass ceiling is not gone.”