This year marks the 14th Annual Lerners Extraordinary Women’s Event. I wasn’t at the firm and did not attend the original event, which was much smaller and more intimate than it is today, but I’ve been involved in the planning for nearly 10 years. To some of us, the benefit of such an event personally, to the firm and to the community is obvious. However, the question of why we continue to host does come up, so I’ve given it some thought.
While I could talk about historical inequalities that still need to be overcome or the proven business case that promoting women leads to greater success, I’ve considered the issue from a more personal perspective, reflecting on my own career.
Since my call to the bar in 2006, I have repeatedly benefited from the extraordinary example of ordinary women. I started practice at a full service firm on Bay St in a practice group that was mostly women. Two of those women had children and spouses who stayed home full time. In retrospect, these two realities had a profound effect on me. First, I never questioned whether my gender would impact on my success in the group. I was surrounded by women at all levels of their careers and they were all succeeding. Second, I had real examples of women who were not only dedicated and ambitious in their careers but were also breadwinners, meaning they had partners who supported them and recognized that, at least some of the time, their careers were going to come first. This set a tone for me and a vision of how my future could look, which did not include struggling with the decision of whether I could stay in private practice and still achieve my non-career, life goals.
Later, when I moved to Lerners, which was already close to gender parity at the time, I was surrounded by women and men who strove for and achieved excellence on a daily basis, several of whom also left the office at 5 pm to get home to have dinner with their families. Many logged back in after bedtime but again, it set a tone for me. The question wasn’t whether I could progress toward all of my goals and make it work but rather, how I would make it work with the support of my firm and my colleagues.
Of course, it’s not just about family or children. It’s about seeing women in leadership positions and having it become the norm. Since starting my career, I have been surrounded by women who are passionate about the law, about their careers and about their clients. I have watched as they reap the rewards of hard work and pursue their vision of good work and a good life. Ordinary women doing extraordinary things.
It hasn’t just been the women ahead of me but the younger women as well. I haven’t known them all up close but I have been a fan from afar. Just the last year has provided incredible examples of young women assuming they have the power to make change in the world and then doing it. Breanna Needham, who led the fight for equal space for women at Osgoode Hall and won. Erin Durant, whose advocacy reminded the profession that we have to fight and save Pro Bono Legal Clinics. Atrisha Lewis, whose voice on diversity is making a cultural impact on Bay St and beyond. And the many women who are running for LSO bencher, perhaps more than ever before, and will prove that gender equality will reach every corner of the profession.
For 13 years I have watched the women around me forge their own paths, follow their dreams and become inspirational leaders. And it has allowed me the privilege of believing I can do those things too. Because of the examples I have seen, I have never questioned that I can be ambitious and succeed in my career, have a loving and supportive partner who is invested in, not threatened by my success, and grow and support my family in whatever way I choose. I have also assumed that I will be respected within my profession and will give back to my community.
This has been my privilege because my experience has been extraordinary when it should be common. We still need a women’s event. This allows us to gather and talk to the leaders and future leaders of our profession and not only hear about the incredible work we are doing but also talk about our families, food, music, art and yes, shoes.
For those still coming up, it brings our idols down to earth and we see ourselves in them. First we realize and then take for granted, that someday we will be them. Representation matters. To stay in this profession that can be so demanding, to want to continue to strive to be our best when stress and obstacles seem overwhelming, we have to see ourselves reflected in the place we want to be, otherwise it appears unattainable.
At Lerners, we are so proud that we have had success in achieving gender parity. We are committed to supporting the achievements of women so that more and more rise to the very top, thus encouraging the next generation to assume that they too can have the same success. We continue this work and we’ve got our eye on the next goal because representation is urgently important to so many groups in our profession, not just women. There’s always room for improvement and we want to continue to be ahead of the pack.