One day some months ago, while interviewing for articling positions in the heart of Toronto’s Bay Street, I overheard a remark that, in a single instant, helped me understand the social barriers women still potentially face — particularly, and possibly even more so, on Bay Street. After meeting with a female candidate, I overheard chuckles and laughs from her male interviewee, who so casually remarked, “That girl needs to wear some makeup. She’ll never be a respected lawyer if she looks like that.”
It’s an age-old story that we like to think is a long-past reality. We hope that workplace culture has progressed and want to believe equality is an anthem that Toronto’s Financial District commits to wholeheartedly.
But as a young female lawyer walking through the Financial District every day, immersed in a network of female counterparts with stories that say otherwise, I hear about the sinking realization that some remnants of that age-old story are still ever present, that social perspectives haven’t progressed to the degree we believe.
The barriers female lawyers, particularly on Bay Street, might face may not be so blatantly obvious.
Salaries may be equal. Responsibilities may be delegated equally. Bonus structures may be, more or less, fair. And, to a random observer, men and women seem to be treated equally in the workplace. But in some firms and companies, I’m told about a separate reality that seems to exist parallel to the public face of a company. It’s a reality that exists separately and apart from the equality mandate publicly disseminated; a social-based reality indicating that a Boys Club still exists.
The barriers female lawyers on Bay Street face aren’t necessarily issues that may be negotiated in employment contracts — instead, the barriers may be social in nature, socially embedded and difficult to eliminate, expose and prove.
You may face it in the predominantly male social groups to which you’re not welcomed, in the social outings to which you aren’t invited You may face it in the conversations you join, where you realize you don’t belong. You may face it in the social events directed to male counterparts, in the lunches and drinks to which you aren’t a part. It’s an uncomfortable feeling of being accepted on paper but socially not welcomed. It’s an issue that legislation can’t fix, but attitudes can. It’s akin to being present at professional recess, where the desired social group won’t welcome you into their its social circle, not because you aren’t qualified and socially acceptable enough but possibly because you’re a woman and you wouldn’t fit in.
And, thus, you may face the cruellest disappointment. That no matter how hard you work or how many hours you put in, you may never be part of this club.
Such social realities are, of course, not present for all female lawyers. And it’s certainly not an issue that only female lawyers in Toronto’s Financial District face. It’s likely that women in general feel it within certain workplaces where such a culture is embedded and accepted. On the other hand, despite all that’s said above, it’s likely that many firms and companies, in Toronto’s Financial District and beyond, are very aware and truly exceptional about assuming social and professional equalities in the workplace. But, inasmuch as certain firms and companies sincerely attempt to present an environment of social acceptance, it’s possible and likely that there are others that don’t necessarily do so, where such realities are typical, acceptable and standard.
The value of female legal mentorship
For female lawyers specifically, the value of having a female legal mentor in these circumstances may be of great value and importance.
There is significance and value to having a support system where you can connect with individuals who may have lived through such social realities in a professional setting, who stuck through similar circumstances and who successfully worked toward senior positions despite embedded social cultures that may have favoured male counterparts.
There is value in having a mentor guide you through understanding and adapting to certain corporate cultures, to help you refine and improve your legal leadership skills and to support your legal professional development.
It’s important to spread, and someday permanently embed, a social mandate that an assessment of legal competence should not consider factors such as gender, social likability and membership in social groups.
Stories about work environments that engage in gender-based social favouritism (inevitably bleeding to professional favouritism) are quite common and may be a disheartening reality women may face in the legal profession — in Toronto’s Financial District, and beyond. And while these issues cannot be resolved overnight, it is important to note the value and presence of support systems for female lawyers.
Opportunities exist to mentor and to be mentored. There is likelihood that another young female lawyer has experienced very similar circumstances in your city. You may not fix the problem, but you can lean on each other and learn from each other.
It’s an age-old story that has, in some ways, remained the same. But is there a chance that we may some day change the ending?
Barbara de Dios is associate legal counsel, in-house at Dundee Agricultural Corporation (a subsidiary of Dundee Corporation), a capital markets and investment company based in downtown Toronto, where she also previously completed her articles. She can be reached at [email protected]