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The Dartmouth
May 27, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Montalbano: Optimism for Gender Parity in the Legal System

After speaking with former Canadian Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, Luke Montalbano ’27 argues that — though we have made much progress in gender equality in the legal system — there is more work to be done.

It is not often that one has the opportunity to interview the first woman Chief Justice of Canada’s Supreme Court, the Right Honourable Beverley McLachlin. One of the most revolutionary justices in Canadian history, McLachlin is Canada’s longest serving Chief Justice ever, holding the post from 2000 to 2017. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to interview her on the subject of improving gender equality in the legal profession.

Despite gradual increases in the percentage of female lawyers in the United States, which jumped from 27% in 2000 to 39% in 2023, there is still more work to be done. Of all state final appellate jurisdiction courts — each state’s final Court of Appeals — 36% of judges are women. Disturbingly, only 34% of state court judges in the United States are women. Some courts have made progress — five federal appellate courts, for example, have reached gender parity — but there are still many with large gender gaps. Progress is being made, which brings me some optimism.

Born in 1943, McLachlin grew up in the small town of Pincher Creek, Alberta, worked diligently at her studies and earned her bachelor’s degree at the University of Alberta. She had studied philosophy but “hadn’t really thought about being a lawyer."

“Perhaps because it had always been a men’s career, and I didn’t know many role models of women who had succeeded,” she explained. 

In fact, McLachlin told me she only became a lawyer after she was “persuaded on a dare” by her then-fiancé to do so. Her love of the law soon followed, she said.

Upon entering the University of Alberta’s law school, McLachlin said she was one of only a few women in her class. She told me that she and her female peers “felt very much a minority” and faced a “very different world” — one in which “even professors could make remarks loaded with sexual innuendo.” She and the other women were also “not taken as seriously” in the classroom due to their gender, McLachlin added. Despite discrimination, McLachlin said she developed a “tough skin”  in law school that has helped her in her life ever since. 

While McLachlin said gendered barriers could make women students “feel like an imposter,” she did her best not to let negativity impact her studies. McLachlin added that the gender disparity reduced noticeably in the 1970s, when women began attending law school in far greater numbers — which she witnessed as a law professor at the University of British Columbia.

Today, McLachlin said she is optimistic that classrooms, for the most part, feel safe for women. She added that she views the treatment of women in courtrooms very positively, telling me that “women are treated as equals” both in the United States and Canada. 

“There are still barriers that arise from the fact that women are still asked to do childcare and sometimes take off a bit of time,” she said. “But that’s changing too and that’s a barrier that I hope will soon not be as important, as many men are taking paternity leave and sharing an equal role in childcare.” 

I concur — more must be done to incentivize equal treatment in the workforce. Gender disparities, whether in the form of social standing and workplace benefits, should not be tolerated.

In Canada, gender equality has even reached the highest court in the land. McLachin said that five current members on the Canadian Supreme Court are women — tipping the gender balance on the nine-person Court toward women. Progress is also being made on some courts in the United States. Five of 13 federal Circuit Courts, for example, have reached gender parity or appointed more women than men: the second, seventh, ninth, 11th, and D.C. Circuit Courts. Many other courts have not reached this point, but these advancements are encouraging nonetheless. Moreover, President Joe Biden has fostered gender diversity on the courts since taking Office. The United States is making great strides, and there is certainly much to be optimistic about with regard to gender equality in the judiciary. 

To the next generation of lawyers, McLachlin highlighted a poignant point: “Just remember that the law is not just a wonderful study in its own right but is a tool for getting greater justice, rectifying wrongs, seeing the future more clearly and helping to build a better society.”

There is a long way to go before the Canadian and American legal systems reach gender parity and equity in all forms, but there is reason to be optimistic; there are efforts by institutional leaders, such as the President of the United States and major universities, to improve gender equality on courts and in the classrooms. We can reach gender parity so long as everyone puts in the effort to change norms, encourage institutional change and push for equity. Let us continue the work on grassroots and institutional levels and not be dissuaded by where we are at now. We should be encouraged by the advancements we have made so far.

Opinion articles represent the views of their author(s), which are not necessarily those of The Dartmouth.