Representation matters. So, too, does space – space in our society, space in the community, space for our voices, and space in the profession. Alice In Wonderland had it right – sometimes “fit” is more than just a buzz word.
What is it that makes an issue deserving of space in our discourse? This is something that I asked myself, and later found myself being asked by others, with respect to the robing room initiative in February of 2019.
In the legal profession, many who are comfortable with a sustained status quo may believe that we have made all the progress we really need to, and the rest is de minimus at best.
Alternatively, some issues are seen as mild irritants – something to debate for a time, but easy to drop when there are other, more pressing things to be done.
The other side of this is that seemingly small issues are representative of systemic problems that are inherently difficult to address. Focusing on the system as a whole can make the task of effecting change seem overwhelming. The barriers that women in law and other equity-seeking groups face in both society and the legal profession frequently can and do fall into this category.
We often treat manifestations of a systemic problem as isolated issues. Individually, these issues can appear so small that they may seem worth overlooking. As a result, these issues have been permitted to exist for so long that they have become omnipresent, blending into the background of our daily lives where they are consistently ignored. These problems become our blind spots: everyday occurrences that we have been looking at for so long that we can no longer see the forest for the trees.
What do these “little things” really mean? Are they truly so small that they should just be ignored? Is the task of effecting change so enormous that these “little things” will simply not even make a difference?
Part of the problem in answering these questions is that the “little things”, and their connection to larger systemic injustices, are misunderstood. The issues are nuanced, and often hard to describe to those who haven’t encountered them as part of their lived experience. Expressing the feeling of not belonging can come across as whining, the act of describing microaggressions can itself be perceived as aggressive, and discussing unconscious bias seems to be one of the easiest ways to make an audience comprised of a traditionally advantaged majority become defensive.
With all of that in mind, when a clear, unequivocal example of inequality appears, it can often be the opportunity to start long overdue discussions and catalyze change.
When the size of the “Lady Barristers” robing room at Osgoode Hall and the disparity as compared to the men’s robing room came to the forefront of online discussions again this year, it was clearly time to address it.
While the robing rooms at Osgoode Hall are one example in one courthouse, they are representative examples of the systemic and pervasive inequalities that women in law face on a daily basis in the legal profession. The connection between the unequal physical space in the robing rooms and the unequal allocation of space in the profession is more than just a metaphor. It is indicative of the fact that, notwithstanding the ever-increasing representation of women in law, the issues we face are often still invisible to many members of the profession. In the context of the long oral history of the mentoring, collegiality, and productive, substantive discussions on cases that occurs in the men’s robing rooms, the disparity was not only in space, but also in access.
One of my favourite quotes from the movie based on the young Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, On the Basis of Sex, is when her daughter, Jane, states emphatically: “It’s not a movement if everyone is sitting down – it’s a support group.”
As advocates, we must speak out and step up for ourselves and others when clear examples of inequality present themselves. Sometimes, it can be hard, and often, there is inherent personal and professional risk in doing so. While equality, diversity, and inclusion have become the latest hot issues in law firms and the profession, many engaged in the discourse are only comfortable with talk, and not action. However, only talking about a problem without taking any concrete steps to solve it imbues a false sense of progress, without actually advancing the issues.
So, what can you do about it?
Be a Catalyst for the Change You Want to See in the World
Get involved, be engaged, and support others who are doing the same. Find something you’re passionate about, and stick with it. Come up with a motto that works for you, and apply it. For example, mine is: “See something, say something” and “Don’t like something, do something about it.”
As recent calls, getting involved can often feel daunting, but advocating for change doesn’t necessarily have to be done with big initiatives or time consuming commitments. Consistently speaking up, supporting others, proposing solutions, engaging with people in positions of power, encouraging participation by allies who already have seats at the table, supporting those who are taking action, and showing solidarity all goes a long way to creating the change that’s needed when it comes to equality, diversity, and inclusion.
Author: Breanna Needham
Breanna Needham is as an Associate in the Toronto office of Borden Ladner Gervais LLP (BLG) and a member of the firm’s Commercial Litigation practice group, where she maintains a diverse civil litigation practice with a focus on complex commercial litigation and class proceedings. Prior to joining BLG, Breanna practiced in the Toronto litigation department of a leading national firm, where she acted in a wide variety of matters, including defence side class actions, corporate and commercial litigation, product liability claims, and professional liability matters, as well as advised on legal obligations in the political sector, including in the areas of ethical compliance and conflict of interests. Breanna then practiced at a leading commercial litigation boutique in Toronto, where she represented clients in a broad range of complex commercial litigation, as well as in both plaintiff and defence side class actions. Prior to attending law school, Breanna worked as an agronomist and territory sales manager in the agricultural chemical industry.
Breanna is committed to advancing equality, diversity, and inclusion initiatives, with a focus on women in law. She recently successfully advocated for the Law Society of Ontario to address the disparity between the robing rooms at Osgoode Hall.