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Lawyers must advocate for gender equality: Townsend

The momentum from the #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns has resulted in an energetic movement of women joining forces to hold men who have abused their power accountable, Toronto family lawyer and life coach Leanne Townsend writes in The Lawyer’s Daily.

While these are positive developments, they should not eclipse the fact that a significant gender gap remains, says Townsend.

“Women continue to lag men in earning capacity and holding positions of power, and there are still many outdated stereotypes and biases widely held in society that create overall inequality for women,” she writes.

A 2017 report from the World Economic Forum shows the gender parity gap — where women are equally represented in positions of power — is actually backsliding, Townsend says, noting that in 2016, the number of years to close the gap was projected to be 83, but that now stands at 100 years. Worse, she adds, the economic gender gap widened last year to 217 years – the same level it was in 2008 after peaking in 2013.

“Here in Ontario, the economic gender gap isn’t improving. Premier Kathleen Wynne announced Tuesday, when introducing her 'pay transparency bill,' that the gender wage gap in Ontario has remained stagnant over the last 10 years, with women earning approximately 30 per cent less than men,” Townsend writes.

These statistics underscore the work that lies ahead and lawyers, female lawyers in particular, must play leadership roles to advance gender equality, the article says.

With #PressforProgress as the theme of the 2018 International Women’s Day, Townsend says the legal community can lead and effect change in a number of ways.

“First, there is the direct work on sexual assault and sexual harassment cases that are now coming to light,” she writes. “Lawyers can help make groundbreaking changes in this area, and it is anticipated that there will be a large volume of work.

“Victims will require representation in civil courts, and there will be increased work for Crown attorneys as a greater number of sexual assaults are disclosed.”

Beyond that, Townsend says lawyers can help employers to design better employment policies in the post-#MeToo era.

“All of this provides a great opportunity for the legal profession to create positive change advancing the equality of women,” she writes.

Lawyers also have an opportunity to challenge stereotypes and bias as they advocate for gender equality, and can do so through the courts, drafting legislation and strong advocacy, Townsend says.

“Lawyers can take on cases that involve challenging barriers to women’s progress, particularly in the workplace where historically many men and women have turned a blind eye,” she says.

It’s also imperative that legal professionals call out inappropriate behaviour and challenge outdated thinking when it comes to gender discrimination, Townsend writes.

“This can be done using inclusive language and by continuing to be creative in challenging rules of evidence and existing laws that have the effect of creating an unfair bias against women,” she says.

“Questions in court about how a victim is dressed, and her conduct towards the accused following the offence are still resulting in a bias against her. These questions either need to be disallowed if they operate unfairly, or there needs to be greater education of jurors and the judiciary on how post-offence conduct by a victim can often be inconsistent with a traditionally male view on how victims should behave.”

Ontario recently passed legislation that provides leave to victims of domestic or sexual assault, joining Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, which have introduced similar legislation, and lawyers in the remaining provinces must push for similar leaves, the article notes.

Young women need strong female support, which is an opportunity for women lawyers to provide mentorship and role modelling that celebrates other women’s successes, Townsend says.

“Senior women lawyers must reach out to younger colleagues and actively offer mentorship, and firms can establish this in a more formal way in-house,” she writes.

The legal profession must also work to keep “its own house clean” by eliminating harassment and inappropriate behaviour in law firms and ensuring gender parity and equal pay for equal work, the article says.

“Law firms must expand policies such as generous maternity leaves, flexible hours and work-from-home options to ensure that women stay in the profession while juggling career and family obligations without burning out,” Townsend writes.

Such changes will come with a financial cost, but she says firms will benefit in the long term by retaining high-quality female lawyers who will ultimately enhance the firm’s reputation and profitability.

“Lawyers must be catalysts for change, and this a great time for the profession to step into a leadership role and press for gender equality that extends not just into the workplace, but into the justice system, the government, the education system and the economic system. Gender equality is coming. Let’s lead the way,” Townsend says.

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