Not one work day goes by where my gender, age and race don’t affect my job. If anyone questions how “real” the discrimination is for women in criminal law, specifically for women of colour, and especially for women of colour who are members of the defence bar, I invite you to accompany me to court, or any of my female colleagues. You would be shocked. Or, simply go read all the hate messages posted on social media about Marie Henein after she decided to represent Mr. Ghomeshi.
Sadly, what women in this profession are forced to do, in addition to facing daily obstacles because of their gender, is work twice as hard in every aspect of this job. We have to work twice as hard to make a name for ourselves, to be taken seriously, to be given a legitimate voice in the courtroom, and to be trusted to handle more serious and complex work. At the same time, we’re expected to tread carefully down the line of “feminine enough” but all the while ensuring that we are not “too sexy” in the courtroom. Show just enough skin and act (appropriately) feminine so we can still tell that you’re a woman, gals!
I won that trial. All by myself. Uterus and all.
Fortunately, nothing “newsworthy,” (if I can put it that way without minimizing the discrimination that I face daily) has happened to me. My experience has mostly been contained within the confines of remarks by judges, how I’m treated and respected by Crown Attorneys, and the look of disappointment on my client’s face when they meet me for this first time: “She is handling my trial?” Essentially, my level of intellect and my talent as a barrister are judged before I even speak. And I know this to be true for almost every female colleague I share this information with. And these experiences happen almost daily. Not monthly. Not occasionally.
What is particularly alarming to me is a specific situation that a colleague of mine faced very recently. Unfortunately, the appalling behaviour exhibited by a senior male Crown Attorney that she was subject to has become yet another catalyst in provoking a larger discussion about gender issues in the world of criminal law. What happened to my colleague I wouldn’t wish upon anyone. Not even on the Crown Attorney who once said to me: “Well, shouldn’t your (male) boss be doing this case? I’m surprised your client doesn’t want a man defending him.”
I won that trial. All by myself. Uterus and all.
We have to work twice as hard to make a name for ourselves, to be taken seriously, to be given a legitimate voice in the courtroom, and to be trusted to handle more serious and complex work. The incident: A female colleague attends court with the hopes of getting a great plea position for her client. She sits in court all day, patiently waiting for a Crown to look at the file so that she has someone to discuss it with. She politely checks in with the Crown, who continuously advises her that he will look at it when he gets the chance. A few other Crowns attempt to look at the file as she waits, and she has a few brief discussions with some of them. None of them commit to handling the file. She arrived in court at 10:00 a.m. At 1:00 p.m. she’s advised that a Crown will finally look over the file over the lunch break, and that court will resume at 2:15 p.m. She returns at 2:15 p.m. and the Crown advises her that a different and more senior Crown will have to look at the file to decide on a position. She patiently waits for the senior Crown. When he arrives almost an hour later, he approaches the female lawyer and asks her about the nuances of the file. She sighs and begins explaining, and mentions that she’s explained this to several Crowns today. The senior male Crown immediately raises his voice, and begins scolding her in the courtroom, standing only a few centimeters from her face (the Judge was not presiding at this point). He inches closer and puts his finger in her face as he waves it and condemns her for being inconsiderate defence counsel. He roars at her and demands that she respect his time and energy. He has the entire conversation never being more than 10 cm away from her face. He chastised her in the presence of court staff, lawyers, and members of the public who were in the courtroom at the time. All of them eyeing the situation as it unfolded. Not one person intervened. He eventually left without looking at the file.
What is especially troubling about this example is that it’s quite clear that the gender of this lawyer was the reason why she had to endure the experience that she did. Exhaling and letting out an exasperated sigh would certainly not prompt a senior male Crown to discipline a younger male. Rather, it is because of her gender, and because of what her gender signifies to the senior Crown, that he felt comfortable and appropriate in asserting his opinion in that way. He puffed his chest like an angry bird and exhibited behaviour that he believed would overpower his opponent. He wanted to shut her down, and shut her up.
I suppose 2016 is still too early to expect equal treatment by our male colleagues in the courtroom.