Order in the Court: How One Canadian Lawyer Tackles Sexism
Flare magazine talks to Cynthia Petersen about sexism in the legal profession.
The American Bar Association recently decided that lawyers who discriminate, harass or single out other lawyers on grounds such as sex, race, religion, disability, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status should be subject to disciplinary action for professional misconduct. Prior to this week, there were no national rules against such behaviour.
When Flare magazine heard about this, they contacted Cynthia Petersen to see what she thought about the new ABA rules. Cynthia has been the Discrimination and Harassment Counsel for the Law Society of Upper Canada for 14 years and her practice focuses on workplace human rights and equality rights law.
“I think the decision of the American Bar Association [ABA] is overdue, frankly,” she says. “By comparison to the way lawyers are regulated in Canada, it shows that the rules of conduct established by the ABA are a little behind us.”
As Petersen explains, on American soil, it’s still a shock for lawyers to discover they could be disciplined for using sexist language in their dealings with other lawyers. “That’s not the case in Canada, where provincial law societies have generally been more progressive in adopting rules of professional conduct to address discrimination and harassment issues. There have long been professional rules of conduct proscribing that kind of behaviour,” she says. “Lawyers who use misogynistic or otherwise discriminatory language can be disciplined.”
Still, discrimination based on gender, race and sexual orientation does happen up here and with relative frequency. In fact, Petersen says sexual harassment—which can include inappropriate sexist comments or more serious misconduct—is one the biggest problems faced by women in the legal profession in Ontario.
“In my role, I have received many complaints over the years that include the type of language that the ABA has declared to be unprofessional. Words like ‘honey,’ ‘dear,’ ‘darling’ or ‘bitch’—and much worse,” says Petersen. “I receive numerous complaints, particularly from junior female lawyers, who have had a range of encounters, where typically a more senior male counsel might use overtly sexist language.”
Petersen herself has experienced sexist remarks more than once. “In the past, I’ve been called ‘dear,’ ‘darling,’ ‘honey’ and on occasion ‘babe,’” she says. “I no longer hear that type of language directed at me anymore, but I know it still happens often to junior female counsel.”
Cynthia goes on to describe her own experiences and the experiences of some of the lawyers who contact her in her role as the LSUC Discrimination and Harassment Counsel and some of the statistics generated in that office.
While Petersen says over the years she really hasn’t seen much change in the number of gender-based complaints she receives from women, there has been at least one hopeful trend: fewer complaints of discrimination based on pregnancy.
And she has seen other markers that bad situations can be improved. “I know that I have assisted several young lawyers whose careers might have otherwise been derailed by harassment situations,” she says. “Some times, real education occurs, and I have seen the behaviours of offending lawyers change.”