McLachlin challenges profession to question status quo on women in law and business

CALGARY — The woman with the top job at the Supreme Court of Canada is challenging the legal profession and business community to engage in a “richer debate” on the question of why there aren’t more women in the profession.

 “Sometimes when this topic is introduced one sees the audience’s collective eyes glaze over as they say, ‘Oh not again — we’ve been there, we’ve done that, things are a lot better now than they were, let’s just get on with something important,’ and yet the subject keeps coming back everywhere you look,” said Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin in her keynote address to the Canadian Corporate Counsel Association’s annual national conference yesterday.

She highlighted the fact the Ontario Securities Commission recently — and very publicly — encouraged the appointment of women to the boards and senior management of corporations listed on the TSX. She also referenced a “spate of books” recently published by successful female executives.

“I’m so confused I don’t know where to go with their advice. I’m told to lean in and then I’m told to push out and then I’m told bullying has to be banished from the feminine lexicon of language. Quite frankly my only point here is the topic is alive and if it’s alive there must be something we need to address,” she said.

She referenced former U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s new book, Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power, which claims the biggest problem the world faces is not global warming or nuclear threat, but the the treatment of women and girls. In it, he talks about the way established institutions subtly, while paying lip service to women and the importance of women, send the message that women are “less capable or different or special — all words used to diminish the impact of women in society,” she said.

“We have done a lot in Canada — we are at the forefront of nations in recognizing the equality of women and girls and yet we need to continue to think about this subject and work on it,” she added.

McLachlin pointed out that in Ontario, only 37 per cent of the practising bar are women, despite the fact more than half of law school graduates are women.

“My challenge to you to is to ask how we could be doing better,” she said. “Is the fact we’re not doing better related to some unstated assumptions? Are we still keeping women down and keeping women out? Do we have equal numbers of women as men in our institutions? If the answer is no, the supplementary question is ‘If not, why not?’ There may be good reasons but we need to ask the questions.”

She also challenged the audience to ask whether women in their organizations are playing roles of equal importance to the men and if not, why? Also, are women playing the same roles?

“You may have an equal number but if by and large there is a structural difference there is something to consider there as well.

“If we were to honestly ask ourselves those questions we could have a richer debate than just suggesting that women need to ‘lean in’ more,” she said. “There’s no point lecturing to people until people ask themselves the hard questions, then things will change.”

McLachlin asked if those same questions were put to a law firm or legal organization where the standard law firm model of all billable hours at the same price, regardless of merit, would perhaps be shown to be one of the reasons there aren’t more women in law firms.

“Is it that the very high expectation for huge billable hours as the only way to get ahead is an impediment? Should we be moving to more flexibility not only for women but for men too?

“Ask if the assumption is the way it has to be,” she said. “We can do better. I believe having equal representation of gender in our institutions is important for two basic reasons — because it’s fair and perceived as fair, and because I actually believe chances are it will help those institutions and our society function better.”

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