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International Women’s Day: Celebrating the Remarkable and Breaking the Bias


In celebration of International Women’s Day, we spotlight three influential women jurists: Bertha Wilson, Louise Arbour, and Beverley McLachlan. These Supreme Court justices are formidable examples of ground-breaking women in the legal profession, which has evolved on the gender front considerably since Bertha Wilson became the first female Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada. However, although subsequent generations of women lawyers have broken down additional barriers that have historically kept women out of private practice and other law jobs, more work is needed to make the profession more inclusive, diverse, and equitable.

Justice Bertha Wilson, the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada, sat on that bench from 1982 to 1991. Justice Wilson did much to further the understanding of equality law, including how seemingly neutral laws often operate to the disadvantage of women and minorities. It was a long journey to the country’s highest court for Wilson, who came from a working-class Scottish family and was told by the dean to “go home and take up crocheting” when she enrolled at Dalhousie Law School in 1955. Needless to say, she ignored him and, after a distinguished career, which included being the first woman appointed to the Ontario Court of Appeal, joined the Supreme Court of Canada in 1982, the same year the Charter of Rights and Freedoms came into force. Wilson played an important role in shaping its interpretation. In landmark cases like Lavallee, in which she advanced the law of self-defence from a battered woman’s perspective, and the reproductive rights decision R v Morgentaler, Wilson established herself as a fearless, determined, and principled judge. In a highly critical report coming out of the Canadian Bar Association’s task force on gender equality that Wilson chaired in 1994, she stressed the difficulties women lawyers with children faced and urged the profession to introduce a performance standard other than billable hours. Many consider that her respected tenure made it easier for governments to appoint more women to the bench.

Louise Arbour graduated from the University of Montreal with a degree in civil law and became an international champion of human rights. As a lawyer, she challenged portions of Canada’s rape shield law and served as Vice President of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. As a judge of the Court of Appeal of Ontario, she led the inquiry into the conditions at the Kingston Prison for Women. Not long after, the Security Council of the United Nations selected her as Chief Prosecutor for The International Criminal Tribunals relating to war crimes in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, which made history by indicting a sitting head of state. After her tenure as a Supreme Court Justice from 1999-2004, she was immediately appointed High Commissioner for Human Rights at the United Nations.

Beverley McLachlan rose from her small-town Alberta roots to become the first female – and Canada’s longest-serving – Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada during her term from 2000 to 2017. Her meteoric rise through the legal ranks culminated in her appointment to the Supreme Court of Canada in 1989 at just 45 years old. McLachlan has expressed satisfaction at being a role model for women lawyers. Her judgments established her as a careful, pragmatic, and independent thinker with a passion for free speech and a viewpoint that courts can justify making substantial changes to the law if, in doing so, they are “reflecting clear changes in social values.” Her post-retirement memoir, Truth Be Told, was an instant bestseller, and she has since published two novels.

Mind the Wage Gap

According to the United Nations and Statistics Canada, despite the gains that women have made in the legal profession, persistent inequities still exist.

The Globe and Mail reported that female equity partners at one major law firm earned 25 percent less than male partners. A survey found that women in-house lawyers continue to earn an average of $19,000 less than their male counterparts.

The Canadian Bar Association notes that the increased number of women in the legal profession has not translated into an equivalent increase of women in top management positions. It says that many women leave due to discriminatory work environments and carry a disproportionate share of domestic and childcare duties.

However, when it comes to the wage gap, experts believe that it is not simply a result of women taking time off to have children (and thereby creating a productivity gap). Instead, there are many complex reasons behind it. The lack of equity may involve issues such as socialization, which has resulted in an expectation that women take on a supportive role, researching briefs rather than arguing in court, or doing non-billable work, for example. It’s also been suggested male lawyers are more likely to promote other men (aka the Old Boys Club). Other potential reasons involve the way clients view female practitioners, the higher likelihood that women practice in sectors or areas that are lower-paying, or that women are less likely to negotiate as aggressively in a salary negotiation. The last point is exacerbated by the pay secrecy in the legal profession.

This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is #BreakTheBias. To build a legal workplace where women can thrive and achieve pay equity, we must continue to call out and take on these inequities while celebrating the remarkable achievements of role models like Bertha Wilson, Louise Arbour, and Beverley McLachlan.