Sexism is not moot

At first, Ria Guidone was floored when she was told to ‘seduce the court,’ but it helped open up a conversation about women in the profession.

Sexism is not moot

At first, Ria Guidone was floored when she was told to ‘seduce the court,’ but it helped open up a conversation about women in the profession.

When Ria Guidone was a third-year law student at Dalhousie University, she was looking forward eagerly to the national moot trial in Toronto — the only competitive trial advocacy event in the country. She and her partner had already won the regional competition earlier in Moncton, N.B., and they were preparing once again to tackle the issue of criminal negligence causing death.

Winning, of course, would be the brass ring, but Guidone, who gave the closing argument, also wanted to get first-hand feedback from the four seasoned advocates seated among the spectators. And that was where everything fell apart.

“The moot trial had a significant impact,” says Guidone. “This was like hitting a wall for me. My gender was never an issue.”

Here’s what happened to make it one. One of the advocates, an experienced trial litigator, provided Guidone with feedback that, ultimately, had her questioning whether she belonged in law school at all. She was told “your argument was good, but your manner is too cold. Try and warm up, try and smile a little. You should seduce the court.”

It wasn’t only Guidone — who had deliberately opted not to smile during her closing argument given the gravity of the topic (the death of someone in a car accident) — who was surprised by the comments. Another advocate spoke up to commend her style, and coaches from the University of Toronto came up to her later to suggest she ignore the advice because it was sexist. (The same man who wanted Guidone to seduce the jury also applauded the performance of the only male student in her mock trial noting that he had a “great voice. It carries loudly, not like my wife’s voice.”)

For Guidone, the issue was not the specific comments from one person but the professional foundation on which these might be based. “This was an important lesson for me,” she says.

“I don’t want to judge him,” Guidone adds, “but we have to be careful about what we say before we say it. There are inherent biases and perceptions.”

Carefulness comes naturally to Guidone. The Ottawa native who grew up in Gatineau, Que. waited a year before she wrote about her experience, an article in the Weldon Times entitled “Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice.” In that article, she writes, “[N]ationals brought with it a more unexpected truth: women still have to fight for a place in this world and, as one of my opponents from the competition put it, ‘the old guard still exists.’”

Her initial response to the comments and the implications that the legal profession might not be the right place for a woman who wants her work, not her gender, to define her contributions was to withdraw and question herself. In her article, Guidone says, “I returned to Halifax with a heavy heart. I fell into a sort of depression. I barely left my room, skipped class, and had no appetite …. I was plagued with self-doubt, anger, and guilt.”

When she emerged from her room, Guidone set out to discover if she was alone in her reaction and her concerns. She quickly found out she wasn’t. “Many men were actually flabbergasted at what was said,” she notes.  

Guidone spoke to other students, her family, lawyers she knew. There was a shared and strong consensus that her experience was simultaneously unacceptable and not unusual. In part, the Dal student concluded, the problem may lie with the values and norms of a country and a profession changing faster than some members of the legal community. But there is also a larger, deeper and perhaps less visible factor at play. “There are systemic issues. It is societal,” says Guidone. Sexism “is built into the structures we have. . . . The rules were written and structured by men.”

And men still dominate. According to the Justicia Project, the Law Society of Upper Canada’s innovative initiative designed to support the retention and advancement of women lawyers in private practice, women account for more than 50 per cent of Ontario law graduates, but this is not mirrored in private firms where women make up fewer than 35 per cent of lawyers and only about 20 per cent of partners. In B.C., women have been participating in the legal profession in equal numbers as men for more than a decade, yet they represent just 34 per cent of all practising lawyers in the province and roughly 29 per cent of lawyers in full-time private practice. Women in B.C. (and elsewhere) are also leaving the profession disproportionately. Of all women lawyers called to the bar in 2003, only 66 per cent retained their practising status five years later.

This reality is true for the legal community across Canada. For Guidone, however, the question was, in the end, a personal one: To be or not to be a lawyer?

The answer is “to be.” Guidone has worked to put the sexism she experienced into context. “I have come to realize what the truly invaluable lesson in that experience was: Although the old gender barriers still exist, our world is ever-changing and we must continue to build community by sharing our stories,” she wrote.

What Guidone’s year of reflection and discussion on this issue has taught her is to reach out and speak up. The experience, she says, has encouraged her to talk with people about sexism in the profession. “It’s important to maintain that conversation.”

The new graduate also believes that a feminist perspective is important for both the profession and for clients. She notes that at the Schulich School of Law there are havens for women, such as the Dalhousie Feminist Legal Association, which works to enhance education in the areas of gender and the law and feminism, offer resources and support to the law school and the broader community and provide a safe space for feminist organizing.

Yet, notes Guidone, “There are still a lot of women who feel alienated by the feminist conversation. That is a population we need to reach.”

Guidone is about to start her own foray into the legal profession as an articling clerk in Halifax with Stewart McKelvey, one of the largest law firms in Atlantic Canada and one of the few in the country with a female CEO. The firm issued a news release to spotlight Guidone’s article in the student newspaper. That release notes that Guidone’s experience “serves as a reminder that feminism is needed in the legal profession.”

But, ultimately, Guidone’s experience at the moot trial two years ago is just that — her experience. Here’s what she has learned about herself and the exploration she has undertaken. “The conclusion I came to was that I am a very reasonable person. I’m not one to rattle cages. If [this experience] does close doors to me, maybe they are not doors I want to go through.”

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