Is Legal Professionalism a Gendered Construct?

Lily Chapnik Rosenthal (1L)

At the 1L Joint Professionalism Training, in September, a portion of the day was dedicated to speaking about what constitutes “professional conduct” in the legal profession. I could not believe my ears when a female member of the senior administration gave “leaving work to take care of your kids” as an example of unprofessional conduct.

Characterizing childcare as “unprofessional conduct” disproportionately targets women. According to Statistics Canada, participation by mothers in childcare during the workday exceeds that of fathers in every age bracket. 68% of women engaged in childcare activities during the day when their youngest child was between five and twelve years old, as opposed to 51% [1] of men in the same demographic. Therefore, it is warranted to explore the question, “How do traditional notions of ‘professionalism’ negatively affect women in the legal workplace?”

Hours in the Office  

Law is a time-consuming profession. According to the Career Guidance Office at Yale Law School, the typical first-year associate is expected to bill between 1,700 and 2,300 hours per year. [2] It is a universal truth, especially in “big law” settings, that the more billable hours one accrues, the more valuable they become to the firm and the more likely they are to be promoted.

Children, especially young children, have greater and more intensive needs. This can interfere with hours in the office and, as previously stated, women tend to bear the brunt of childcare responsibilities. Sandra Nishikawa, a bencher of the Law Society of Upper Canada (LSUC), asserted in an interview that, as a mother, “Sometimes, you need to say, ‘I need to leave to pick up my kids from daycare.’ ” [3] This can falsely signal to employers that women are not serious about their careers, while, conversely, “It seems to be more acceptable, even charming, when men do this.” This illustrates that, although women perform more childcare tasks, when men leave the office to perform the same tasks, they do not suffer the same unprofessional implications.

Boardroom Conduct

The first obstacle for women in boardroom-level positions is simply that too few women reach this level. According to a 2017 report from the American Bar Association, although 45% of associates in private practice are women, women only make up 18% of both equity and other-level partners. [4] LSUC’s Retention of Women in Private Practice working group found that women “have been leaving private practice in droves largely because the legal profession has not effectively adapted to [the] reality” of women balancing responsibilities at work and at home. [5] This means that many women leave the legal profession before their voices can be heard in a meaningful way.

Even when women’s voices are heard, gender expectations often colour perceptions of women’s abilities. Our own Career Development Office (CDO) advised women to “try not to reduce” themselves in presentation-style settings while simultaneously advising men to “not overwhelm.” (This advice was provided in a PowerPoint on the CDO’s Resource Library.) [6] They also advised both men and women to adopt “power poses!” This implies that professionalism involves some variation of masculinity and that women should downplay feminine traits to succeed. This approach is not unique to law, but it demonstrates how masculine traits seem to be equated with success.

Professional Dress Codes

Men and women lawyers alike are expected to dress to impress. But what does this mean for women specifically, when society expects women to be pretty but not too “sexy,” to have a body type that fits societal norms, and yet somehow show her personality through her style—all at the same time? In an article from Precedent, entitled “Fashion Advice for Young Lawyers,” Emma Williamson, an associate at Dentons Canada LLP, claims that a new recruit should wear “conservative pieces.” She asserts that for women, “to make daring fashion choices when you’re just starting out takes the focus off your talent as a lawyer.” [7] 

Conversely, Peter Sullivan, an associate at Cassels, Brock & Blackwell LLP, claims that, to look professional as a man, all that’s needed is “that you take care of yourself and walk into any client meeting with confidence, looking like you’re ready to do business. This means being well kempt and well rested, with your shirt ironed and your shoes shined.” While the female associate focuses on “fitting in” as her end goal, the male associate prioritizes projecting confidence. If this is a reflection of the general culture surrounding dress at law firms, then different messages may be sent to men and women concerning how they project their personality into the workplace.

Considering that the first Canadian female lawyer only gained access to the Bar in 1897, it is remarkable how far women have advanced in the profession. However, dated conceptions of professionalism hold women back from their full potential.

[6] This powerpoint can be found in the “Professional Development” folder, and is entitled “Advance your Legal Career 2016 – Essential Skills for Success Presentation.”