The presence and realities of women in the legal profession

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We are three female law students graduating this year. We have been asking ourselves questions about the situation of women in the legal field. We wonder about the evolution of the barriers that women must face in this field. In an effort to enlighten ourselves on our future careers as lawyers, we met with Muriel Paradelle, a professor at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law, who teaches a course on Women and the Law.   

I am a professor of law in the Civil Law Section, recruited in 2005, and when I was recruited, it was to teach a course on justice and extreme political violence, a course on the history of law and a course on women and the law.  

Where I was struck for the first time with the question of feminism was when I wanted to take the competitive examination for the judiciary, and there, when I was taking the training to prepare for this examination, one of our trainers told us: but in the competitive examination, we are going to favour the candidacies of men, because there are more and more women who apply, there are many more women who apply to this competitive examination than men, the profession is becoming more feminized and this is going to introduce a bias in the exercise of the function of judge. And there, I fell out of the sky, because the fact that this profession was occupied for dozens and dozens and dozens of years only by men, and it has never been considered that that could bias the exercise of the profession? And there the impartiality of justice is suddenly, because women occupied more and more positions, there we were going to end up with a justice which was not going to be impartial anymore? And in particular, this trainer who is notably concerned with matters of sexual violence, matters of divorce and child custody, and yet it was not a bias that in matters of sexual violence, it is men who judge crimes committed 80% by men, on victims who are 80% women? The bias, we didn’t even think about it!  

Generally speaking, in society, a woman can only represent a woman, and a woman when she acts, she acts only as a woman. So, a woman lawyer is first a woman before being a lawyer, whereas a male lawyer, the masculine represents the universal, the masculine represents objectivity, the masculine represents the rational, so, necessarily when he intervenes, he is a lawyer before being a man.  

And there, I discovered not only a movement that I criticized without any knowledge, I discovered that the law is not this set of general, abstract and impersonal asexual rules. That the law had a sex, that this law was elaborated by men, because for a long time they were the only ones that had the knowledge, that had access to the legal professions. So they are the ones who elaborated the norms, they are the ones who interpreted them, they are the ones who put them into practice. I worked with concepts such as the good and reasonable father, the reasonable man, the good father of the family, and at no time did I say to myself, but how is it that these notions, these concepts of law, are put in the masculine form?  

Women are present in the majority in the ranks of the university – I think we are not far from 70% female students. On the other hand, where the ratio is reversed is when you enter the practice of law, and in particular, the higher you go, the more prestigious and responsible positions, the ratio is reversed, that is to say you will find more men than women. We know that there are areas of law where there is an over-representation of men and these are generally the most prestigious branches of law, the best paid branches of law. I mean all business law, corporate law, all international law, especially public international law, all criminal law, even though the profession is becoming more feminized. So yes, and we will find women much more in family law, labour law, youth law, health law, and in fact in areas that are less prestigious, less remunerated, and areas also, where the weight of work will be less.   

The legal professions are still masculine in their conception, in their functioning, and therefore, women will effectively be victims of this discrimination generated by the system. Of course, they will face sexism, a sexism that will translate into sexual harassment, moral harassment, unsolicited sexual attention, jokes that are more or less salacious, more or less grilling, more or less welcome. Of course, to all the discrimination linked to the fact that they are women, and that therefore they are not considered as competent as men. Of course, discrimination in terms of salaries, discrimination in terms of advancement and promotion, even though the majority of lawyers today are women. If you look at the Quebec Bar, I believe that more than 55% of lawyers are women.  

In 2020-2021, there were 15,651 women lawyers, representing 54.92% of all lawyers.   

Barreau du Québec 

As soon as you go up in the hierarchy of the firms, the ratio is reversed, and we have women who are mostly hired as associates, but to become a partner, it is extremely difficult, although we know that it is really the ultimate consecration of the legal profession.   

“Only 15% of women lawyers who participate in profit-related activity, equity and decision-making in law firms are committed to improving the representation of women in the profession.” 

Projet Justicia 

They are discriminated against as women and as mothers, because obviously, and especially in the big firms, they will say to themselves: women mean maternity in the more or less long term, so that means parental leave, pregnancy leave, parental leave. It also means: if the children are sick, who is going to take time off work, who is going to stop working for a more or less long time, it’s the women. And so, motherhood is not considered to be compatible with these professions that require such an investment. But I have had students say: “I would be interested in going into business law, I would be interested in going into public international law, but I want a family”, and the woman is always caught with, when she wants to have a career, to be a good mother, because she will be criticized for not being an available mother, and at the same time having a career. And so, many women will either choose areas of law that require less investment, or else, and this is what we have noted, many women, particularly in private practice, after five, six, ten years, leave private practice to go into government jobs, to become a law professor, because they can’t handle the double life: family life and professional life. And so, we have a loss of women in law firms and in the high legal professions. 

In 2020-2021, although private practice remains the most common type of practice (for both men and women), it seems to be more popular among male lawyers (51.95%) than among female lawyers (35.60%) and practice in public and para-public organizations attracts a greater proportion of female lawyers (27.51%) than male lawyers (17.39%). 


So, I would say, be a feminist. But arm yourself to be a feminist, because it takes aplomb, it takes knowing how to respond to that criticism or that ignorance that is always critical. It’s a great challenge, because being a feminist is simply being proud to be a woman and wanting to have a place as a person, not just to be considered for your gender.   

The first cohort of the Quebec Bar Admission course was composed of 4.9% women. Today, women represent 60% of the enrolment. 

In this video, three female students on the verge of entering the legal profession ask themselves about the realities facing women in the domain of law. To get answers, they meet with Muriel Paradelle, a professor at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law.

Professor Paradelle explains that the legal profession was originally developed and practiced by men. The resulting impact of this singularly masculine origin affects women today, enabling insidious practices like gender discrimination in the choice of areas of specialization. Professor Paradelle explores the long history of barriers that women have faced in the legal profession, providing an overview of the evolution of this male-dominated profession and highlighting the barriers that are still present in 2022, in spite of the significant progress that has been made. Finally, she offers some advice for the next generation of women entering the legal profession.

This visual advocacy video was produced by law students Emmanuelle Fortin, Judy Malek and Miruna Daniciuc as part of the Visual Advocacy/Law and Film course offered at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law, Civil Law Section.

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