On June 15, 2016 my husband and I attended a session hosted by the Ontario Bar Association’s Women Lawyers Forum and the Canadian Corporate Counsel Association at Microsoft Canada’s headquarters in Mississauga, called “Gender at Work: Engaging Men as Agents of Change”. The chairs of the program were Sabrina Bandali (Bennett Jones LLP), Nadine Letson (Microsoft Canada), and Amee Sandhu (SNC-Lavalin). The panelists were Marni Dicker (Infrastructure Ontario), Julie Petrini (Microsoft Corporation), and Rich Sauer (Microsoft Corporation).
First, I must say it was refreshing to have just as many men in the room as women when discussing gender imbalance in the workplace. Unfortunately many of the events hosted by women lawyer groups and associations dealing with advancing women tend to attract only women. I think we need to make a real effort to let men know they are invited and encouraged to attend these events as well. Men have a key role in correcting gender imbalance in the workplace. I've seen the difference it makes when men sponsor, mentor, and champion women lawyers.
The discussion at the event began with the acknowledgement of the unconscious biases that we all have. We learned that Microsoft uses a theatre troupe to help their employees understand their unconscious biases. I think this would be great for law firms as well. Other topics included maternity/paternity/parental leaves, the importance of mentors and sponsors, getting men involved in diversity initiatives (ask them!) and how to deal with workplace harassment and discrimination, to name a few.
Clearly everyone in that room knew of the importance of promoting gender equality in law. There is no dispute that there is a business case for diversity and inclusion. Now, how do we get those who think it is “not their problem” to enter the discussion?
Firms and corporations over the last decade or so have used “coaching” for women as one way to try and correct the gender imbalance in law. As a woman lawyer, I’ve been coached on just about everything under the sun. I’ve been coached on how to transition back to work from maternity leave; I’ve been coached on how to business develop and network; and I’ve been coached on how to negotiate at a table with men (Sit up! Lean in! Speak up!). And while I truly appreciate the effort and support, all of this coaching is futile if the head of your department chooses not to return your files to you when you return from mat leave. Or, if the ‘rainmakers’ invite the male associates up to their Muskoka cottages with the clients for networking, but not the female associates. Or, if the senior partners don’t invite you to the negotiating table in the first place. When do these heads of departments, rainmakers, and senior partners get their coaching? They may not even be aware of the impact that their actions can have (both positive and negative) on promoting women in law.
I think it is important to continue to have these events, and we need to invite and encourage everyone to participant in the discussion. Congrats to the OBA Women Lawyers Forum and the CCCA on a great program.
Erin C. Cowling is a freelance litigator, researcher & writer at Cowling Legal Freelance and President and Founder of Flex Legal Network Inc., a network of freelance lawyers.