The case for ladies only

The case for ladies only
In their book Breaking Through: Tales from the Top Canadian Women General Counsel, Kirby Chown and Carrie Mandel interviewed 32 women general counsel, but one interview really illustrated the view of the current generation of female lawyers. One young woman questioned if there is still a need for groups that specifically champion the cause of women.

Mandel and Chown, a former litigation partner at McCarthy Tétrault LLP and the firm’s Ontario regional managing partner from 2002 until her retirement in 2009,  had spoken with Bonita Croft, vice president legal, general counsel, and corporate secretary with Trican Well Service Ltd. in Calgary. Croft related how she had done a presentation to a women’s group and a young female lawyer commented that as 52 per cent of her law school class was made up of women she didn’t expect there to be any bias or any need for a women’s support network going into the profession. In response, Croft noted in the late 1980s her law school class was 54 per cent women. Had much really changed? Despite the decades in between, Croft and others contend women talking to women, whether it be at special events or in associations, still has considerable merit. However, “understanding how men approach things is another key to success,” Croft told Mandel and Chown, “because to a great extent they still write the rules.”

But Mandel, a consultant with global executive search firm Spencer Stuart, a graduate of Harvard Law School, and former litigator with a large New York law firm, says the GCs they spoke to for the book said “in the early years it’s quite helpful to have female-only networking events and mentoring groups because often women come out of law school and don’t have the same intuition around the rules of the game in a corporate environment. Often they think if they are just good technical lawyers and put their head down and do good work they will be on equal footing with their male counterparts.”

What the authors found was women can benefit from having men and women in their court at different stages of their careers. But some believe women-only groups are not pushing the discussion forward in an effective way; and may even be holding it back. Others argue the environment has improved for women in the legal profession but there are still challenges — they have just evolved.

The mother of all women’s law associations

Flashback to 1919 when Laura Denton Duff and Helen Currie started the Women’s Law Association of Ontario. The two women were the 20th and 32nd women lawyers called to the bar in Ontario. Both had fathers who were lawyers and felt there was no support system in place, so they banded together with the other women in their class and started the association. They gathered together a handful of other young female lawyers and law students in the offices of Frank Denton, Laura’s father. They planned an annual meeting to welcome new women students-at-law.

Next year will mark the WLAO’s 95th anniversary. In the 1980s, WLAO was very active and vibrant and had a “sorority feel to it,” says Kathryn Hendrikx, its current president and a lawyer with David Barristers Professional Law Corp. in Toronto. In the 1990s, the association changed to be more about education, continuing professional development, networking, and advocacy. “It’s really evolved,” says Hendrikx, noting there is now a “high-powered network” of women — such as Laurie Pawlitza, former treasurer of the Law Society of Upper Canada — who assist when asked. “That’s what has made it such a long-lasting association. It’s evolved as women’s issues have evolved. It’s business and interpersonal development — an extension of mentorship and sponsorship.”

Similar efforts have been at work in Alberta since 1996 with the Association of Women Lawyers. It has a membership of about 300 lawyers from law firms, crosses all sectors in-house. as well as students from the University of Calgary.  “It is a place where like-minded people can get together and talk and our association tries to advance women lawyers so we provide career development, opportunities on soft skills, and things not available through the Canadian Bar Association, such as marketing yourself or marketing your practice,” says AWL president  Diane Pettie, vice president and general counsel of Canexus Corp. in Calgary.

Thanks to building on its relationships, WLAO has a permanent seat at the treasurer’s liaison group at the LSUC. “We are a member of that board and meet four times a year with a variety of associations to voice what’s happening within our membership and to advocate.” It also sits on the law society’s equity advisory group. She says those two initiatives led to the Justicia Project, designed to retain and advance women lawyers in private practice. The association also became part of the Ontario Bar Association counsel. “We were tactical — to be sure we sat around and said, ‘How are we going to ensure this association continues another 100 years and doesn’t die on our watch?’ That was our concern as a board — how do we make it relevant and speak to us, as women in our 30s, as we were at the time, and women in their 50s and 60s,” she says.

Hendrikx points out while law firms have good internal mentoring programs they don’t necessarily help mentor a person interested in pursuing opportunities outside the firm. The associations are broader and the help they provide makes them relevant. Members of the WLAO span private practice, in-house, government, the judiciary, academia, and not-for-profits. While it doesn’t publish its numbers, Hendrikx says it has 500 active members, 400 to 500 lifetime members, and 1,200 “friends and family” in its database including judges such as current Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, Ontario Court Chief Justice Annemarie Bonkalo, and Heather Forster Smith, chief justice of the Ontario Superior Court.

Pettie admits she understands why the existence of women’s groups is questioned but says the reasons remain strong. “We honoured some of our founding members two years ago and the first president of the Association of Women Lawyers was saying, ‘Isn’t it unfortunate we still need these groups?’ When they set this association up they thought in some utopia vision that it would no longer be needed,” recalls Pettie. “I think it’s always going to be helpful because women are different from men.”

Hendrikx says the dynamic conversations in a women’s only organization touch on “mutually experienced challenges and successes.” That includes how to make partner, achieve promotion, develop clients, and get noticed. The fact the association has evolved is what keeps it relevant, says Hendrikx. She thinks its longevity proves independent, stand-alone women’s groups are useful and are important to women. “If women in the 1920s, 1950s, 1980s, 2000s had felt that it wasn’t useful it would have disbanded and it didn’t,” she says.

WLAO’s events also include pub nights, discussions on how to hang out your own shingle, and talks on “So you want to be a judge or mediator.” The AWL offers a mentoring program and raises awareness of options available to women in the field of law. But part of finding real success is letting others know what your goals are, says Pettie. “If you tell people what you want then they will help you,” she says. “Socially women seem to have trouble asking for sponsorship whereas it’s pretty natural for men and that may just be the way we have grown up and are wired. If you have those sponsors in the boardroom behind closed doors saying, ‘Pick Sue because I know she can do this,’ then Sue is going to get picked for the managing partner job. If she hasn’t told anybody she wants that job or doesn’t have a sponsor and there are two other candidates who happen to be men somebody will be in there saying, ‘Joe or Tom can do this.’”

Get help from those who can help

In order for women to get what they want out of their careers they need to seek sponsorship from those who can help them get where they want to go.
That may often mean seeking the assistance of men they work with. “If you don’t have sponsors you’re behind,” says Pettie. “That’s something both men and women need to be thinking about but we need to make sure women are thinking about it because they don’t naturally think to do it.” She admits similar opportunities would be useful for young men as well. “I don’t know that they are really being delivered to them.”

Recently, Julia Shin Doi, general counsel at Ryerson University, approached WLAO about creating a group specifically for women general counsel. They plan to meet quarterly and there are already 20 members. “What I found was that women general counsel who are new to their roles would reach out to me to connect about my role and experience as general counsel at the university. In one week three women reached out to me and it was just a very natural kind of organic process. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun if we all got together to share our experiences?’” she says.

Members of the group include Norie Campbell, general counsel at TD Bank Group, Judy Naiberg, vice president, general counsel, and secretary at Sony Music Entertainment, Mary Martin, vice president and general counsel at Metrolinx, and Michelle Moldofsky, general counsel at St. Michael’s hospital. “Every day I hear from more women wanting to be part of this group — we cover a vast number of industries.”

They are also a powerful group. Shin Doi has considerable experience in this realm. She created the Korean Canadian Lawyers Association in 1995 and followed with the launch of the Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers in 2007. She’s also currently establishing a roundtable of diversity associations with the Toronto Lawyers Association. “I’ve been through a lot of founding of groups. I know how difficult it is to start an organization. We took advantage of the infrastructure the Women’s Law Association of Ontario already had in place,” she says.

In that context Shin Doi says starting a group for women GCs is no different than any other group with a special focus. “I think women value a sense of community and we as women have multiple relationships that help us both in our happy times and difficult challenging times. It’s really important to us to have an excellent career as well as an excellent family life and so one of the aims of the group is networking, mentoring, and career development,” she says.

She is also acutely aware of the statistics that show women aren’t rising to top positions in law as fast as some would think. In 2012, the Diversity Institute at Ryerson released a study on women in senior leadership positions in the Greater Toronto Area. A focus on the legal sector revealed women held just 26.7 per cent of senior leadership roles in the legal profession. In law firms 25 per cent of partners were women, 40.2 per cent of judges were women, and 42.9 per cent of Crown and deputy Crown attorneys were women.

The study also indicated women are exiting firms prior to becoming equity partners for a number of reasons. “Cases before the court suggest that overt and systemic discrimination remains a significant impediment for female lawyers,” the report states. “A lack of mentoring opportunities and role models and exclusion from informal networks” were also cited as barriers.

But breaking down those barriers can’t happen with isolated events and groups, says Lisa Vogt, chief diversity officer at McCarthy Tétrault LLP. “I have never, even as a first-year associate 30 years ago, liked events that were by women, about women, for women because I think unless you involve everybody in the discussion things don’t move forward.”

While McCarthys holds client events at the Toronto Film Festival or Vancouver’s Bard on the Beach, in which the firm encourages male lawyers to invite women clients, Vogt doesn’t support the traditional client activities that favour men over women. She is all for events that don’t involve five hours playing golf. “Who has that kind of time?” Vogt says things are “hugely different now” than when she started in the profession. “I think there was no question it very much was an old boys club 30 years ago and that’s true of any industry where you’ve got a huge disproportionate number of one gender rather than another. Law, like investment banking and a lot of the professions that were male dominated, are less so now,” she says.

McCarthys used to have a women’s task force but Vogt didn’t like the optics. Three years ago, it changed its name to the national diversity committee and expanded the definition, still with a focus on gender, but broadening the debate to include everyone. “It’s advancing our gender priority more significantly than if we had left it as a women’s task force,” says Vogt.

At the end of the day, men need to be involved in the conversation, says Vogt. “I have both sons and daughters but if we don’t raise our sons to understand this and to want what we do then we’ve failed. I’m failing my daughters by not including my sons in the conversation. I feel that about women’s organizations,” she says. Vogt serves on the board of directors of the Minerva Foundation for B.C. Women. When she joined, she said it was critical for her to attract men to the board. “They need to be seen to be involved and that it’s a priority for all of us,” she says. She’s also part of Commercial Real Estate Women Network. For years it was by women for women, but there is now a push to include men.

Vogt does feels strongly that unless monitored closely, women don’t get the same opportunities as men. “In part that is unintended biases,” she says. “[Princeton professor] Anne-Marie Slaughter called it the ‘soft bigotry’ of low expectations for women.”

Women are going to take a mat leave so we won’t give her this big file because she won’t want to put the hours into it. “Why don’t we let her choose? Let’s not choose for them. Let’s give them the same client-facing opportunities and it may well be because of the way we structure our practices. It’s right about the time women get up for partnership they start to have families. It’s going to take longer. The corollary to that is we need to encourage our male partners and associates to take parental leave too.”

Toronto-based Kate Broer, region co-chairwoman of diversity and inclusion at Dentons Canada LLP, doesn’t prescribe to the idea only women should mentor women and she acknowledges women-only initiatives may not have worked in the past but she understands why women may benefit from women-only groups or events. As the only woman in the room in the early part of her career, Broer can see why it’s appealing to have separate events. “That is still a lot more effort for me than if I’m in a room full of women or if the majority are women or at least 50 per cent. We interact differently,” she says. “I say to the men here all the time I’m happy to do a men’s event. If you think it’s worthwhile I’m cool with that but nobody’s taken me up on it because they don’t see themselves as a group.”

Having separate mentoring or sponsorship efforts creates divisions between women and men, says Broer. “My mentors were men. I didn’t have any women mentor me and it cannot be an us-and-them mentality, that is not what this is about, but we have to recognize there are differences, for sure.”

Chown admits while networking on its own won’t do it for women, women need powerful mentors and sponsors to help them advance and those people tend to be men because of the way firms and companies are currently structured. “Law firms and companies continue to be largely male environments so that women-targeted programs or activities such as networking can be extremely helpful to women,” she says. “The unconscious transmission of information in law firms that happens casually between men often doesn’t get transmitted to women in the same way.”

Mandel says as women advance in their careers they need a champion and it’s more likely to be a man because there are still more men at the top. “If you have limited yourself to women championing you and guiding you when you get to that more critical stage in your career you might fall short to what you need in that next step.”

When Dentons started its diversity initiative seven years ago, it was determined there wasn’t going to be a separate women’s initiative. “The reason is we didn’t want it to be about women standing in the corner talking about mat leave,” says Broer. “That ghettoizing — that was going to be wholly unproductive.
Law firms have been doing it for years and it has been a colossal failure and we didn’t want to replicate colossal failure.”

The discussion around women-only associations and whether they should exclude men came up at this year’s fifth annual conference of A Call to Action Canada in Toronto. Debra Henke, director of legal services North America for Accenture Inc., spoke on a panel about programs the company has in place to aid in retention and someone asked whether men should be excluded from joining women-only groups. “The discussion wasn’t for or against but that it is a real concern and there were arguments both ways on the issue,” says Joy Casey, founder of A Call To Action Canada. “We all want to be inclusive — whenever there is an element of exclusion it raises a concern. I can see the arguments both ways but I think for any community there is an issue of support from shared experiences that are important and I think people need those opportunities to talk freely and openly. You also need the opportunities to be all-inclusive. It shouldn’t be us against them, but you just need those times,” says Casey.

She says it was important for A Call to Action when it was founded that it be all-inclusive. “But that doesn’t mean the South Asian bar or other groups aren’t very important so people can talk about their shared unique experiences. I think it’s the same for women. We need to be all-inclusive but that doesn’t mean on some occasions it’s not very helpful to just have your own community.”

The unconscious bias

When Lisa Borsook became managing partner at WeirFoulds LLP in Toronto in 2007, she recalls the amount of external attention it brought her way. Then she began to realize she was the only one. “There wasn’t anybody else. It is an odd thing so at that moment I started to think more about what I would describe as the ‘unconscious bias’ that prevents women from rising to high-level management positions in their firms.”

Borsook says gender is a factor in everything and she is a supporter of women-only groups and events — the firm holds a women’s event for clients every year. “We were all joking about golf the other day. . . . It’s a seven-hour trip that I don’t know any women who, unless they really love the game, have any time for.
So our women’s group is focused on coming up with interesting things for women to do to engage with prospective clients and we do that differently.

“When I hear people say they are gender neutral I think ‘How?’ I have come to believe we just are different,” says Borsook. “We collaborate differently. Our view for the future is different. The way we imagine ourselves five years from now is different,” she says. “Instead of pretending it doesn’t happen, I think we should applaud it and recognize it exists. If you’re in-house counsel and you have an opportunity to speak to other women who are like-minded how can that be a bad thing?”

Similar to WeirFoulds, Lerners LLP also holds a women-focused event every year  and every year attendance has grown. “It’s just another subset of people with whom you have some commonality and it’s nice to have a collegial connection with,” says Gillian Hnatiw, a partner with Lerners in Toronto. “The fact of the matter is even though women are apparently over-represented in law school these days we’re still under-represented in the higher echelons of the profession.
If you look at the years of call as you get older there are fewer and fewer women left in practice.”

Hnatiw views women’s networking events as an opportunity for women to encourage each other.

At the end of the day, while gender-specific groups may give women or other groups the benefit of networking with like-minded individuals, the actual work of propelling women forward into senior leadership positions involves a more difficult kind of discussion.

“I think women’s programs are great and it’s terrific we get together but that’s not actually the hard work,” says Broer. “That’s the easy stuff. The hard stuff is really hard. If we’re going to make a real difference we have to be committed to doing it and women aren’t going to do that — that’s going to be a partnership of women and men.”

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