Local lawyers share personal experiences with sexism in industry

Wellington Law Association panel discussion at book launch event for “Guelph & Wellington County’s Legal Past: A History of the Wellington Law Association”

Women working in the legal profession have overcome a number of hurdles related to their gender, agreed a panel of local lawyers who recently spoke about their personal struggles in the industry.

Three Guelph attorneys participated in the discussion at a book launch this week The Legal Past of Guelph & Wellington County: A History of the Wellington Law Association. The event took place at the Guelph Civic Museum and was co-hosted by the Wellington Law Association and the Guelph Historical Society.

The book, published this year, examines the national contributions of men and women from the region, but also the challenges women professionals face to establish themselves. Some names in the book are Joan Heath, the first woman to practice law in Guelph, Bridgette Geisler James, Robin-Lee Norris, Jane Armstrong, and others.

David Cameletti, president of the Guelph Historical Society and author of the book, said the Wellington Law Association found that 31 women and 118 men worked in the legal profession in 2016.

In addition to the panel discussion, attendees learned about the book and listened to a presentation about Patrick Kewin, a prominent Guelph attorney who later became Chief Justice of Canada, given by his grandson Stephen McKenna.

In 1979, Inga Rinne said she was the third woman to practice law in Guelph. Back then, she recalls, there were no women’s dressing rooms at Guelph Courthouse, and she changed into her robes in a jury room with a clerk guarding the door.

“Back then, the word accommodation wasn’t used as often as it is today. Accommodation wasn’t the question, the question was: ‘How do I fit in?'” Rinne said about not asking about accommodation in order to appear competent.

Diane Squires, an attorney and partner at SV Law, said she was unaware of the challenges women face because she grew up in a household where both sexes were expected to attend university. Before moving to Guelph, Squires was an articulation student and worked for a Toronto law firm in the late 1980s.

“There were a few exceptions, but I’ve always attributed that to the person across from the entrenchment,” Squires said, “and I attribute some of the comments to my youth today, too.”

While both said they’d never received direct comments about their gender at work, Rinne and Squires both agreed that maternity leave was a big challenge for them. Squires commented she could not have afforded to have three children if she had not lived in Guelph.

“I often put the kids to bed and went to work at night, so I adjusted my schedule,” Squires said.

Rinne adds that as more women entered the workforce, maternity leave became more difficult.

“There was a particular study I took part in many years ago about the retention rate among female practitioners, and the retention rate wasn’t good in my day and it still isn’t good,” Rinne said.

The third speaker, Jennifer Eensild, said women who came before her had to fight to be in the room. While she believes women are in this space now, Eensild said comments have been made more direct about her, including saying she shouldn’t become a lawyer because of her gender.

“I’ve been called a ‘bitch’ for sticking to a position,” said Eensild, an Associate Lawyer at MFC Lawyers, “Male attorneys slammed their hands on tables in mediation rooms in front of me when I kept a line on behalf of my client, and these are all things that, while they don’t seem huge in the grand scheme of the day, add up over months and years and wear you down.

While Eensild said these experiences did not happen to her while working in Guelph, she said it was important to talk about these things.

“Those are the things I would ask of you, especially as male colleagues, stand up for your female colleagues if you see this happening to them.”