Shara Roy, chief legal counsel at Ernst & Young LLP, on pushing forward for women in law

Roy will be a speaker at Canadian Lawyer’s Women in Law Summit in February

Shara Roy, chief legal counsel at Ernst & Young LLP, on pushing forward for women in law
Shara Roy

Canadian Lawyer spoke with Shara Roy, chief legal counsel with Ernst & Young LLP. Roy will be a speaker at the Canadian Lawyer’s Women in Law Summit Canada on February 16, presenting on “Pushing forward gender parity, diversity, and inclusion in law.”

Law firms have espoused the importance of women and diversity for over twenty years, but what real change has occurred?

Twenty-two years ago, I started law school, and 19 years ago, I graduated. When I was studying law at the University of Toronto and articling at Davies, there was gender parity.

When I look around now, I still see many of my male colleagues, but only a few of my female colleagues, in prominent roles in the legal profession.

I don’t think women go through four years of undergrad, three years of law school and articling, and then suddenly realize they always wanted to stay home with the kids.

Several people made that decision based on their own circumstances, and I am not critical of that. I think you're a stronger person than I am if you can stay home with the kids. But other factors have pushed women out of the law, such that they felt they couldn't do both.

It wasn't because they weren't smart or because they weren't dedicated. It was hard because they were told and shown that it was too hard to be a woman in law.

Women's equity partnership remains low, and women are disproportionately populating the bottom third of compensation lists. How can that be addressed?

The law society did an analysis several years ago, and if you break the numbers down by gender, they are not good. And then, if you further break them down for BIPOC and LGBTQ2S+ women, the numbers get stark.

It's not a pipeline issue. It hasn't been a pipeline issue for at least 20 years.

In my in-house role, I have many women, people of colour and LGBTQ2S+ individuals applying to work with me. What that says to me is that non-traditional law firm jobs are more appealing. And why is that? It is because these people are feeling excluded.

In law, we are told to outwork everybody. It wasn't until I had my first child that I felt a shift in how I was perceived. People thought that I was going to be less dedicated.

And it wasn't until I was a partner that I felt it was my responsibility to do something about it.

I think it's a lot to ask young people to step up and push for systemic change. It is the responsibility of those of us who have tenure in the profession to do this work.

How can law firms demonstrate their commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion through work allocation?

I think you must tie it to compensation. You must measure it, and then you must act on it.

I know one law firm that provides data at the end of the year to partners about who they've worked with. It is under the auspices that you should be working with more people. But if you take that a step further, you can slice and dice that data by demographics. And then, you can tie it to compensation, where you are compensated based on the diversity of the people you work with.

I hope we're past where people are misogynistic, racist, or homophobic. What we're trying to do is interrupt unconscious bias.

My husband and I shared our parental leave. But when I took an implicit bias test, I still had an implicit bias towards women at home and men at work. And why is that? Because that's what I grew up with.

You mentioned your husband. How can we engage men to improve things as well?

I firmly believe that we won't be equal at work until we're equal at home. So, at my previous firm Lenczner Slaght, we had a parental leave program where everyone who became a parent by any means received the same amount of leave.

The idea was that men would be able to and would be encouraged to take leaves where they were the primary caregiver for their children. That showed the men and the women that you could take leaves.

It does two things if we can encourage men to take on those home responsibilities. It helps their partners if they are in a heterosexual relationship. And secondly, it delivers the message that there's no mommy track in the workplace.

How can we best tackle unconscious bias?

Unconscious bias training can be controversial because it doesn't necessarily lead to action.

We can recognize our unconscious bias, but that doesn't necessarily prompt people to act differently. To truly address bias, people need to recognize it in the moment and be willing to act altruistically.

I'm proud of a few initiatives I worked on to address this when I was at Lenczner Slaght.

The first was around anonymized hiring. People are critical of that as well. Because they say, “What if I'm trying to identify people, for example, people of colour?”

First, I would say that relying on somebody's name is not the best way to do that. But secondly, what I found very powerful, and it had to be combined with unconscious bias training, was that it interrupted my habitual thinking.

We've all had the experience of talking to someone on the phone and then we meet them in person, and we say, “You look different than what I expected.”

If we are asked the moment before we met that person, “What do they look like?” we probably would say, “I don't know.” And yet when we meet them, we think they are not quite what we pictured.

So, the name anonymized hiring was really to stop one from picturing the person. Just look at the criteria.

The second initiative that I'm very proud of is ReferToHer. And that was really to interrupt my own unconscious bias. When we are asked for referrals, senior men generally come to mind. And that wasn't wrong. They were senior and well respected and would serve the clients well. But we realized we also knew some terrific women who weren't popping into our minds.

What are you doing in your current position at EY?

At Ernst and Young, we look at the data. So, we look at compensation data with a gender, BIPOC and LGBTQ2S+ lens and see how we pay people. You take the individual out of it, look at the data, and then commit to change.

I recently chaired an EY-hosted event called “50/50 Women on Boards.”

At this event, I noticed how hungry professional women are to have a level playing field. The buzz at that event was incredible. Women want to stay connected to each other; they want to talk to each other.

When we instituted ReferToHer, and we reached out to women to ask if they'd like to be on the list, what was both heart-warming and heartbreaking was the number of senior women who said getting referrals has been the biggest struggle of their career.

Tackling these issues requires a little bit of bravery. Because someone will criticize you. The silent criticism will be from the establishment, and the vocal criticism will be that you're not doing enough and that your actions don't solve the whole problem.

And to that, I say, of course, it doesn't solve the whole problem. But I would rather take a small step than no step at all.

*Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

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