Despite the great strides women have made in the labour market, both in law and in business, women remain a minority in business law. Let us take a look at the current situation and the challenges being faced, and try to find some tangible solutions.
Female Lawyers and Business Law: Powerful Findings
As of March 31, 2023, female lawyers accounted for approximately 56% of the Quebec Bar’s total membership of 29,974. Of these members, the upcoming generation— those with 10 years’ practice or less—represents 35% of the profession, and 64% of them are women. Women are also in the majority at the École du Barreau, representing 65% of the student body. If the trend continues, the proportion of women should continue to grow as they progress in the profession and hopefully remain in it!
Given that business law has been the most widely practiced area of the profession for almost ten years, one would expect women to occupy the field of business law in the same proportion as they occupy the law profession as a whole. However, an analysis of the data contained in the Bar’s reports shows that they remain under-represented in business law.
It would be easy to ignore the situation by reasoning that the profession is healthy in spite of everything, and that women are free to make their own choices. But that would be a hasty and short-sighted conclusion. Indeed, the view that this under-representation is due solely to women’s personal choices fails to take into account the impacts of numerous factors, including bias and prejudice against women, organizational cultures, and exclusionary attitudes within the profession. Besides, can we really afford to let the majority of women in the upcoming generation bypass business law? Carving out a better place for them in the profession would help create a larger pool of new, skilled talent. Building up the next generation in this way would allow the profession to evolve further, with more diverse perspectives and talents. Furthermore, if the trend towards more women in law continues but business law fails to sufficiently address its attractiveness and accessibility to women, the shortage of recruits willing to make a long-term commitment to business law is likely to become increasingly acute.
The Glass Wall Between Women and Business Law: Challenges
The under-representation of women in business law gives the impression that a glass wall stands between them and career opportunities in the field, as a number of intangible factors appear to hinder their progress. The following hypotheses aim to make the wall more tangible.
Lack of positive role models
The fact that this invisible barrier has been in place for many years in business law has contributed to a vicious circle. As a result, positive role models for women in the profession are becoming more rare. This deficiency can affect both the decision to pursue a career in business law and the desire to remain in it, since positive role models serve as an inspiration both for getting started and for persevering when confronted with obstacles. When things get tough and self-doubt sets in, a like-minded role model who has experienced similar difficulties and succeeded, or a colleague who can be counted on for mutual support and solidarity, can make the difference between persevering and giving up.
Limited opportunities for informal influence
Given that women still face specific obstacles in the field of business law—as in many other fields—when it comes to networking and opportunities for influence, positive female role models play an even more important role. In fact, in interviews with women working in the field over the past five years, this point has been brought up many times—upon condition of anonymity. The feeling that “boys’ clubs” still exist and continue to exclude women from informal networks of influence has been mentioned often. “Just because women play golf, and just because there are co-ed bathrooms, doesn’t mean that male cliques have ceased to exist,” said one business law professional who was interviewed in 2022 as part of a firm’s organizational climate diagnosis. In addition, telecommuting, which has become increasingly popular since the start of the pandemic, could also have more harmful consequences for women than for men. While people of all genders appreciate telecommuting for its flexibility and work-life balance, it can also cut remote workers off from the informal opportunities for influence that occur in office doorways or at the coffee machine. If we assume that in employment law, as in the labour force in general, men have fewer personal and family burdens than their female colleagues, they may be more likely than women to report to the office. If so, we should be concerned about the impact such an imbalance in physical presence could have on women’s access to opportunities for influence, learning, and spontaneous assignments to stimulating projects during informal office discussions.
A feeling of inequity
Beyond feeling cut off from certain informal centres of influence, many women complain of a lack of transparency, objectivity, and recognition of their contributions beyond billable hours or other equivalent indicators, resulting in an unpleasant sense of pay inequity. In fact, when we looked at data published by the Quebec Bar in 2022, we noted a significant gap between female lawyers and their male counterparts, both in terms of average salary and in the proportion of lawyers earning more than $110,000, which is only 37% among female lawyers, while it is 50% among men. The fact that women are less likely to hold leadership positions, that they are more likely to put hours into the organization that are not measured in quantitative results, and that they are less likely to fight for higher wages for fear of being perceived badly, are all possible explanations for this phenomenon.
Daily biases, prejudices and aggressions
Women in business law face many biases and prejudices. These include being questioned, either implicitly or (often) explicitly, on their ability to reconcile their personal and professional responsibilities. Even though men now take an increasingly active role in household and family responsibilities, several studies have shown that women have to juggle more of the mental load and challenges of work-life balance. Female lawyers at the Quebec Bar make up 98% of the members on parental leave. For this reason, there can be a hesitancy to offer jobs or promotions to women, regardless of their abilities or their specific situations, whereas men in similar situations are not necessarily challenged in the same way. This is another source of frustration and inequity. Beyond being questioned about work-life balance, women also experience regular bias and prejudice in the form of microaggressions, including inappropriate comments or jokes, such as, “You’re pregnant again? You’re going to have to leave business law for family law!” or “You’re pushing hard for your client, you’ve got big balls for a woman.” Even when uttered in a humorous or well-intentioned manner, these offensive phrases contribute to a culture of prejudice and exclusion of women in business law, as well as in many other fields. (It is important to remember that although it is invisible, the glass wall is experienced in all spheres of work.) Although the current social trend is to trivialize the effects of these types of daily aggressions, it is important to realize that just because a woman laughs at a joke or feigns indifference does not mean the comments are without impact. Women often choose to react in this way to avoid being further excluded for being perceived as taking things too personally. If we hope to break down the barriers that restrict women’s access to the profession, we must stop passively accepting such inappropriate gestures and comments as a normal part of our culture.
To promote the increased presence of women in business law, several possible solutions should be explored.
Solutions that apply to the field of law as a whole:
- Pursue and strengthen the Bar’s equity initiatives within the profession, notably to promote better representation of women on legal bodies and prevent harassment.
- Take women’s perspectives into account when reviewing working conditions, to make them more conducive to women’s well-being, performance, and commitment (flexibility; support services for family responsibilities; possibility of adjusting salaries and expectations according to availability, which can fluctuate from year to year; targeted coaching on return from maternity leave to promote reintegration; etc.).
- Review pay equity between men and women by ensuring that the criteria used to set salaries and bonuses reflect both qualitative and quantitative contributions.
- Provide female lawyers with tools to help them deal with microaggressions, discrimination, and harassment in the profession, both when they begin their studies and as soon as they enter the job market.
- Implement initiatives to raise awareness of the issues and of possible solutions among all members of the profession by empowering each individual who can act as an ally, with a particular emphasis on those in leadership positions.
Getting to the Heart of the Matter
With so many women choosing law, but so few working in business law, it is easy to assume that this is due to the nature of business law itself, which is known for being highly demanding, fast-paced, and competitive. While certain distinctive features of business law do stand out from those of other fields, it would be a mistake to assume they are the main reason for the low proportion of women in the profession. When we consider that women are progressing equally well in law and in business—even if there is still a long way to go in both professional spheres—it is clear that business law has some catching up to do, and that proactive measures are needed.
Of course, women have a role to play in learning about the profession and preparing themselves, as soon as they begin their studies, to take their rightful place in an environment that will always be intense and fraught with obstacles, some of them visible, many of them invisible. But they cannot be expected to bear the burden alone. It would be like saying, “The glass wall is here to stay, so get yourself organized and climb over it.” Organizations, as well as the broader business law community, must take the lead in changing mindsets and practices. Assuming that the number of women in the profession of law continues to rise, the pressure on organizations to adapt their cultures and conditions will grow, as has been the case in other professions such as medicine, which has been facing major challenges and seeking solutions for a number of years now. It is in the interest of business law to make adjustments before the gap between the proportion of women in law and those willing to commit to this specific field widens to the point of becoming a crisis of recruitment and retention. It is time to work together to make business law a healthier and more inclusive field for everyone, regardless of gender identity.
Article originally published in Développements récents en droit des affaires, volume 540, by the Barreau du Québec and published by Éditions Yvon Blais, 2023.
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