Women in the Legal Profession Task Force

Equality initiatives elsewhere may hold promise for BC women lawyers

After examining leading equity studies from across Canada and in the United States, the Women in the Legal Profession Task Force is preparing to recommend to the Benchers new policies and programs for advancing the equality of women lawyers in BC.

The Law Society’s own studies — of the Women in the Legal Profession (WILP) Subcommittee (1989-1991) and Gender Bias Committee (1990- 1992) — were landmarks. The WILP study showed that BC women lawyers were leaving the profession in disproportionate numbers to men and that many women faced discrimination in the practice of law, difficulties accommodating work and career responsibilities and barriers to career advancement.

To address some of the concerns, the Law Society introduced a number of changes:

  • A 1992 Professional Conduct Handbook rule that identified discrimination, including sex discrimination and sexual harassment, as a form of professional misconduct;
  • a 50% reduction in liability insurance for members in part-time practice, beginning in 1993;
  • a non-practising membership category with a lower fee, beginning in 1994;
  • active encouragement of women lawyers to stand for election as Benchers;
  • reimbursement of reasonable child-care expenses incurred by Benchers and lawyers while on unpaid Law Society business;
  • encouragement of law firms to adopt workplace policies on maternity and parental leave, alternative work arrangements, gender-neutral language, employment equity and workplace harassment; and
  • retaining an independent Discrimination Ombudsperson (now Equity Ombudsperson) to mediate allegations of discrimination in law firms, with the agreement of all parties.

The Law Society initially monitored these initiatives, including the uptake of workplace policies. But now, 15 years later, the question remains whether women have achieved equality and, if not, what more should be done.

Last December, the Benchers struck a new Women in the Legal Profession Task Force — composed of Vancouver Benchers Gavin Hume, QC, chair, and Margaret Ostrowski, QC, Life Bencher Warren Wilson, QC, Lay Bencher June Preston and lawyer Wynn Lewis. The Task Force has considered whether to undertake further survey work in BC or instead to review existing studies and to recommend policy and programs that will help BC’s women lawyers.

In its interim report to the Benchers in March, the Task Force said that a gender equality problem still exists in the profession.

Although women have for many years made up 50% of law school graduates, they still make up only a third of all lawyers in the profession. On a brighter note, this is a marked increase from 15 years earlier when women represented just one-quarter of the profession.

What still is evident from the statistics is that a proportionally higher percentage of women are in part-time practice or hold non-practising membership (32% of women as compared to 17% of men). 2004 President Bill Everett, QC reflected on these points in his President’s View column when he asked, “Are women lawyers where they want to be in their careers, or are they settling for less?”

The negative experiences of BC women lawyers on issues of discrimination, harassment, career satisfaction, advancement or remuneration identified some years ago appear to be mirrored in other jurisdictions. For that reason, the Task Force took a closer look at the recent studies out of Alberta, Ontario and some American states and concluded that the experiences in those jurisdictions remained relevant and helpful in formulating possible initiatives in BC.

A 2003 Law Society of Alberta study flagged that 92% of the women and 69% of the men surveyed thought that there was some form of bias or discrimination against women in the profession (33% of the men and 14% of the women thought there was discrimination against men).

According to that study, sexual harassment is an ongoing problem, and the most common type of discrimination against women and other diversity groups was perceived to be discrimination in career advancement.

“Discrimination was most commonly manifested in the forms of racist and sexist comments, denial of opportunities to work on files, exclusion from opportunities to be involved in workplace activities related to career advancement, exclusion from work- related social or business development activities related to career advancement, and negative career consequences as a result of having children or being a parent,” the BC Task Force told Benchers in describing the Alberta study.

The Alberta report concludes that, while incidences and perceptions of discrimination have slightly decreased since 1991, there remain serious hindrances to the advancement of women lawyers. Little progress has been made in the private sector to accommodate parenting by both men and women. The study also found overall dissatisfaction in the culture of the legal profession among active and inactive members.

Turning to Ontario, BC’s Task Force reviewed the 2004 report of the Law Society of Upper Canada: Turning Points and Transitions: Women’s Careers in the Legal Profession. This report is the culmination of a study of the same panel of lawyers over a 12-year period.

While the study noted some impressive advances in the status and mobility of women lawyers in Ontario since 1990, there were also “sizeable gaps that persist between men and women in remuneration, promotional opportunities and levels of job satisfaction.” Moreover, both men and women faced common challenges in law practice, including balance between career and family, lack of workplace flexibility and benefits.

According to that study, women lawyers in Ontario were less likely to be partners or sole practitioners, less likely to own businesses, less likely to attain management or supervise others and more likely to leave the profession than men.

The Task Force in BC has recommended against conducting another full-scale, detailed follow-up study of BC lawyers on equality issues, but plans to draw on the best research from other Canadian jurisdictions and from Washington State, California and New York. At this juncture, the Task Force is evaluating equality initiatives that have already seen success and might serve as a model in BC.

The Task Force plans a further report and recommendations to the Benchers in the coming months. If you would like more information, or have a view you would like the Task Force to consider, please contact any member of the Task Force or sent your comments care of Kuan Foo, Staff Lawyer, Policy and Legal Services, by email to kfoo@lsbc.org or by mail to the Law Society office.