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Quiet sexism still persists in legal profession

Speaker's Corner

The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have put the topic of sexual harassment, sexual assault and gender discrimination at the forefront of media and popular discussion in a way I have never seen in my 50 years on Earth. Good.

My cohort of law school classmates all know, and many have experienced such overt quid pro quo harassment, in an attempt to get hired back after articling, climb the Bay Street ladder or land lucrative clients.

More importantly, we need more systemic change in the legal profession.

The answer, I believe, is for men to start taking a leading role in the public dialogue.

Until men start doing more than just paying lip service with some weak “I support the victims” statements and change our attitudes wholesale, quiet sexism will continue.

And I do not mean the sort of change brought about by fear. There are many serial harassers who will now suddenly be circumspect in their behaviour only because of the risk of being fired or brought before the law society’s discipline tribunal.

As men, we need to change our very attitudes toward the women in our profession. And we need to admit to ourselves that it will be difficult in many cases, human nature being what it is.

Those of us who are employers, teachers and mentors within the profession must lead by example; this is more than just words and pithy slogans on a lapel pin.

But I am also concerned that while much emphasis is being placed on the serious acts of sexual harassment and sexual assault, we are overlooking the subtle — and in many ways more insidious attitudes of sexism — which may well continue to exist in the legal profession and which ultimately lead to the bigger problem.

Not that long ago, in a crowded motions court, while I was awaiting my matter to be called, a senior lawyer stood up to introduce himself and began his argument on a motion. The judge asked if the woman at counsel’s table was the client or his junior.

He replied, with a dismissive hand gesture, “No, Your Honour, that’s just my secretary.”

It was the gesturing and the emphasis on the word “just” that struck me. I’m betting that this counsel would never have been so dismissive of a male staff member, even if that male were a law clerk or a paralegal.

I have a trusted associate lawyer who has been with my firm for six years.

She runs many of the client files on her own and is, in fact, the main point of contact for almost all of the personal injury files in my office.

Yet I cannot count the number of times in the last six years when clients, opposing male counsel and insurance adjusters have referred to her as my “assistant.” This, despite the fact they have been introduced to her as a lawyer and have her email or letters, which clearly indicate that she is a lawyer.

I have had a number of male juniors over the years; not once has this sort of thing happened to them.

Similarly, I have had over the last number of years a mix of male and female articling students.

They go with me to meetings, discoveries and court.

They are introduced as articling students. Their business cards and e-signatures clearly identify them.

Yet, I routinely receive emails or calls from clients (and opposing counsel) that refer to the female students as “assistants.” Male articling students do not get called “assistants.” Ever.

I have had many clients, even recently, who refused to come in and meet with my female associates when I was unavailable. I have never had this issue when I was unavailable and asked the client to meet with a male staff member, even when that staff person was not a lawyer.

Male lawyers and clients speaking about a particularly difficult opposing counsel will refer to a man as “difficult” or “aggressive” but always refer to the tough woman counsel as a “bitch.”

A young family lawyer that I mentor is routinely addressed by senior male counsel opposing her as “sweetheart” or “darling.”

These examples underscore a significant problem for young women entering the legal profession, particularly for those who wish to start their own businesses.

As male leaders of the profession, we owe it to our female colleagues to stand up for them and to educate them about the attitudes of otherwise nice men who may mean them no harm yet may be doing so without even realizing it.

We must go further than simply paying lip service or signing a pledge. We must lead by example and politely and firmly correct behaviour tinged with quiet sexism.

Darryl Singer is a Toronto-area civil litigator. He can be reached at darrylsinger.com.

  • Unbelievable!

    Kelly
    "...educate them about the attitudes of otherwise nice men"???? You've got to be kidding me. We've been told for decades that they mean no harm, yet, harmful they continue to be, obviously. If you want to help, perhaps educate the "otherwise nice men" about their attitudes. We're not the ones who require education. Unbelievable.
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