In response to this discrepancy, the Women’s Legal Mentorship Program at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law recently held an event to start the conversation about improving women’s standing on the bench. The panel included justices Heather Perkins-McVey and Brian Lennox of the Ontario Court of Justice, and Ottawa professor Rosemary Cairns Way.
Currently at the Supreme Court of Canada, four of the nine judges are women, including the chief justice. On the federal bench the presence of women has declined, therefore creating a ripple, said Cairns Way. It is a matter of public interest that the bench represents the diversity in our society, and more women are needed to create an environment where female judges can feel comfortable expressing their opinions, she added.
Perkins-McVey shared her experiences working as a criminal defence lawyer while balancing family life and her appointment to the Ontario Court of Justice in 2009. She encouraged women to reach out to her for mentorship and guidance, and to be proactive in using their own networks to seek out opportunities.
“Ask questions of your friends and colleagues and utilize the resources that are available to you,” she said.
The panel acknowledged that mentorship is instrumental in the progression of women in their legal careers and to the bench. Having women as judges and senior partners in law firms can provide women with the support to continue in the profession while maintaining a work-life balance.
“It appears that the biggest deterrent to women continuing in the legal profession — in private practice especially — is finding a work-life balance,” says third-year law student Yana Banzen. “It is encouraging to see that in law school women have started outnumbering men in some provinces. Hopefully with time this will reflect in the judicial appointments.”
2L Charlotte Wolters said: “Of the lawyers currently working in Ontario, only 38 per cent of them are women, even though women make up over 50 per cent of law schools.”
Lennox provided an in-depth look into the provincial and federal judicial appointment processes. While 10 years at the bar is required before submitting an application, most applicants have 20 to 25 years of experience and are 45 to 50 years old. The problem is that many women leave the profession before they are even eligible to apply.
“It is the life experience that you bring to the bench which is the most important,” said Perkins-McVey, emphasizing women’s unique experiences.
Olga Morozova is a first-year law student at the University of Ottawa.