If you liked our feature of Canadian Lawyer, you’re going to LOVE this read. We teamed up with our favourite writer and editor, Alexia Kapralos, to give you a quick look at how women are viewed in the legal sphere.
Some of this may be news to you (although we hope its not). Alexia perfectly sums up the issues that females face in terms of dressing within the courtroom, alongside many other barriers that women continue to face in the profession.
Let us know your opinion on the subject by leaving us a reply!
It’s no secret that women face sexism, and inappropriate behaviours that are rooted in sexism, in the workplace. But, this is especially true to women working within the legal profession.
These attitudes are toxic no matter what because they dehumanize women, but they are especially toxic in this case (no pun intended), in my opinion, because they are being perpetuated by people in a place of power in society, like by judges and lawyers.
As a journalist at Law Times and Canadian Lawyer, I had the opportunity to cover an eye-opening panel on Feb. 8 at the Ontario Bar Association’s Institute in downtown Toronto – Female Litigators: Staking Your Claim in the Courtroom.
Many strong and accomplished female lawyers, seasoned veterans in the profession and younger, newer lawyers, spoke on this panel. The stories exchanged at this panel really resonated with me and also shocked me.
Linda Rothstein and Linda Fuerst, two successful female litigators that have been in the game for over thirty years, both faced some disheartening sexism within the courtroom in their early years. A big part of the way they were treated was heavily focused on their appearance in the courtroom – something that men don’t experience to the same extent.
Fuerst, in her early years as a lawyer, said that there was one particular judge that would treat her better when she appeared more feminine in court, wearing a dress instead of a suit. She had to go along with it for the better interest of her client, she said, because if it meant sucking it up to get a better outcome in court, she had to do it.
Often, judges would refuse to hear women in court if they weren’t dressed a certain way.
“No trousers for you in this courtroom young lady,” quoted Rothstein, speaking about her experience of a judge denying hearing her in court based on her dress, belittling her by calling her “young lady”, on top of it all.
Rothstein also shared that early in her career, a judge stopped her as she was delivering a motion to tell her that she had “lovely finger nails.”
To this day, while this sort of upfront treatment might not be as evident in the courtroom, female lawyers are still criticized and dissected based on their appearance in court. For example, this was something we saw with Marie Henein during the Jian Ghomeshi trial.
The Lindas’ stories do provide some hope though because the younger lawyers on the panel explained that these things are something they haven’t had to experience in court. But the situation is still far from perfect.
These younger lawyers went on to say that a lot of the sexism they experienced in the legal realm was outside the courtroom, which includes in meetings and through email correspondence with male colleagues or clients, again, often belittling their ability to do their job well.
Hearing these stories reminded me that sexist attitudes and treatment of women spans across different industries too – even those completely opposite to law.
A few years back when I was a baby-journalist, still in journalism school at Ryerson University in Toronto, I mainly covered a completely different beat – music. Specifically, I had my finger on the pulse of the musical (and loud) world of rock.
I attended a music festival in 2015, the Vans Warped Tour, in Toronto. There were rows upon rows of tour busses, creating a temporary neighbourhood in the parking lot of Ontario Place. Nested somewhere within these rows of tour busses were some lawn chairs, on which New Years Day’s vocalist, Ashley Costello, and myself were having a chat.
“Ash, what’s one question you’re sick of hearing in interviews?” I asked her.
To that, she replied that she was absolutely fed up with being asked: What’s it like to be a woman in a band? Costello said that it made her furious to hear because she said that it’s exactly like being a man in a band, except you’re female. A female in the music scene can do exactly what a man is capable of doing.
But like in the legal world, things are far from perfect in the music industry. She, too, has faced sexism, being the front woman of a rock band. I recall her saying that while setting up for shows, people at venues would often mistake her for anyone but a member of the band, and especially never thought she’d be the vocalist and the main creative force behind the music. Most of the time, she said that people assumed she was the merch girl, selling t-shirts for the band, since attractive young women tend to do this job a lot of the time.
Fast forward to the present. This sentiment echoed into my mind during my time listening to the women speaking on the panel.
Law Society of Upper Canada bencher/civil crown law office lawyer at the Ministry of the Attorney General, Sandra Nishikawa, shared something similar. Often, in court, she’d be mistaken for anyone but a lawyer, even when robed.
“People are seeing you as something first before seeing you in the gown,” she said. They’re seeing her as a just woman, not a woman of the law.
So it seems whether you’re a woman fighting for a client in the courtroom, or a woman fighting for rock n’ roll, we’re all fighting the same battle – the battle on sexism. The only way to beat it? The world needs an attitude adjustment. Until that happens, women, lawyers and non-lawyers, need to stick together and support one another, which was a message stressed during the panel too.