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I am My Father’s Daughter: the Importance of Allies in the Struggle for Gender Equality

7 minute read

Every year on International Women’s Day, I post on my personal social media accounts a photo of my dad with my sisters and me.  It’s the early 70s and my dad looks like he has his hands full with three, young (and in the case of my middle sister, very mischievous)[1] daughters. Which he did.  And he looks happy.  Which I like to think he was.

The caption on the photo is always along the same theme.  Here was this farmer in rural Ontario, no sons and three daughters, who, together with my mom (who is a force of nature herself), made it his life’s work to raise and support independent, strong women.

He was my first male ally.[2]

This year is different.  My dad died just under a year ago and, some days, the loss still feels quite sharp.  I have struggled with whether to post the photo at all. But, when I was asked if I would do a blog for my firm for IWD, I could not pass up the chance to talk about him and the importance of male allies.

Before I do, I acknowledge that talking about male allies is weird for a day that is about recognizing women.  I mean, let’s be honest - men take up a lot of the air space as it is. However, if there is going to be progress in this profession, it cannot just be about women supporting women, or women pushing for female advancement. Men need to join the chorus too. I have no shame in admitting that my success, whatever that may be, is in part because men supported me. They made sure not only my voice was heard but it was amplified.  More men need to do that.

And it started with my dad.  My dad didn’t always treat my mother as his queen but he always treated her as his equal. That mattered. He encouraged his daughters to read and to think, and to participate in conversations with adults.  He allowed our voices to be heard, not just with family but with whomever sat around our kitchen table. He made it clear to his peers that his daughters’ voices were ones worth listening to. He didn’t always agree with us (and, as I grew older, less and less with me on a whole range of topics), but he did encourage us to speak our minds. Except when the evening news was on the TV, in which case everyone had to be quiet.

I remember one day when I was a teenager, one of my father’s friends was talking about his new daughter.  A lifelong farmer, borne of a farming family, this friend was concerned about not having a son. My dad would have none of it. He told his friend that his daughters could do anything, on the farm,[3] and in life.[4] It was a pretty affirming moment for me.

When I became a lawyer, I was terribly naïve about this profession.  I never thought that big city lawyers from Toronto would think that I couldn’t do something just because I was a woman.  My dad never thought that about me, my mom or my sisters, and he grew up and lived in a culture where women often held more traditional roles.

Unfortunately, over the years, I have met some men who I can generously describe as not living up to the standard set by my dad.  Male lawyers who talked down to me or over me, lawyers who looked to me to fetch the coffee or take the notes.  Even one lawyer who proclaimed that “women like her (meaning, me) are the reason why women should not be allowed to practise law. They always have to run home to their children.” The fact is it was 7 pm and that man had not asked a relevant question on discovery for hours.

Fortunately, by and large, I have found a wealth of male allies in my firm and beyond. From early on in my career, I was encouraged to take the lead in meetings and on phone calls. One of the partners with whom I worked when I was a first and second associate would meet with me in advance to review all the issues so that, when we had a call, I would be the one who presented our collective views. It gave me authority with the client.  Like my dad had when I was growing up, this partner encouraged me to speak my mind.  And backstopped me with the client, without undermining my voice.

In my second or third year of practice, a male partner told the Court of Appeal that I was the “brains” behind our argument. I was suitably horrified by his pronouncement. But giving credit when credit is due is really important. That goes for all “juniors” but is especially important in a profession where women’s ideas are not always credited and where there are many stories of a woman’s work being “repackaged” as the product of her male colleagues. While these almost off-hand comments seemed small at the time, small comments add up to real value in a lawyer’s practice.

I have repeatedly told the story of being at a large event for a (male) client for whom we had just finished a big piece of work.  I was halfway through my fifth year of practice. The client came up to thank my senior male colleague for the work that was done and, without missing a step, my colleague said “Thank her.  She is the one who did all the work.” And then told the client to keep an eye on my career, as I was going far.  I’m not sure how far I have gone, but I remember that comment because that male client assumed that my male colleague was the only one to thank. Those assumptions must be corrected and we should expect that men will step up as my colleague did and correct them.

I have been lucky to have had numerous female mentors who have paved the way for me in this profession. Women who gave me their time and energy to make me a better litigator and who have been leaders in our firm and in the profession. And women, like my mom, who showed me the value of work ethic, common sense, and personal strength.  But at the risk of repeating a dreaded pandemic phrase, we are all in this together.  And, by “all”, I include men.  Though teenaged me would likely not have said this, we need more men like my dad.

 

[1] She still is mischievous. And my oldest sister is still very thoughtful. I have no idea how they would characterize me, other than as their annoying little sister who got away with everything.  They would not be wrong.

[2] My dad was not “woke”.  At all.  He would have viewed the term “male ally” with suspicion. But, on this issue, I get the last word.

[3] My stories of “picking rocks” in the fields (yes, that’s a thing) and hauling hay bales off wagons will be for another blog about “things to do in the summer when you don’t have a cottage”.

[4] As it relates to me, the first part of what my dad said is not entirely true.  Even after I turned forty, my dad still would not let me use the riding lawnmower, proclaiming that I was “too little”. My sisters still rage about the unfairness of this to this day.  See comment above re annoying little sister who got away with everything.

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Cynthia B. Kuehl

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