Brand building through storytelling

Fired for being female: a post-feminist takes up the cause

Two years ago I rode a gleaming elevator to the lofty suite of a distinguished Bay Street law firm, where a bevy of female associates awaited my views on leadership. They wore the uniform of ascension (funeral-worthy suit, neutral top). They had shunned sparkly pins, tousled curls and open-toed shoes. They nibbled smoked salmon canap?s in a cream-coloured board room with a wall of windows looking down on the dusty, churning city. The rainbow composition of the group (faces in every colour, plus a head scarf or two) sent a twenty-first century message: no barriers here. That the women believed this message became clear from their questions and comments. They expected a rough patch in their child-bearing years, but they figured they could navigate that with the same assurance that had seen them through law school and brought them to the gates of success. They would master what they called “the day-care dash.”

I thought of those eager young women as I read Toronto Life‘s cover story on Bay Street outcast Diane LaCalamita, who has launched a $12 million sex discrimination case against an even more august firm, McCarthy Tetrault, where she used to be a junior partner. There was no day-care dash for Diane LaCalamita. With no children, she could work killer hours and hobnob with clients just as freely as any of the guys. McCarthy lured her away from a smaller firm, having tried and failed to hire her for her first job in the profession. Then it all went sour. LaCalamita says McCarthy broke the promises that enticed her to the firm, promoted less experienced men over her head and fired her when she complained. McCarthy says she didn’t deliver and refused coaching to bring her up to standard.

Into the crossfire stepped Toronto Life‘s Kelly Pullan, who looks from her photo in the magazine to be a funkier age-mate of the lawyers I met for chardonnay and inspiration. Like most ambitious young women of her generation, she’s never had much interest in gender disparity. According to the Editor’s letter, she took on the assignment with an open mind and a nagging suspicion that LaCalamita deserved to be fired. What she learned along the way convinced her otherwise. She doesn’t say she underwent a feminist conversion, but her story makes it clear that she did.

Fireside chats like the one I gave are among the inducements that law firms hold out to female associates. So are mentorship programs and mommy tracks. Like their peers in accounting and other professions, law’s king-and-queen makers have been vowing for eons that they have to stop the flight of women from their ranks and to groom more women for leadership (women make up more than half of law-school grads, but only 19 percent of partners in law firms). Writes Pullan: “…at this very moment, in banks and investment companies, law firms and law associations and all sorts of consultancies and NGOs, well-intentioned people are working really hard to find ways for companies to ‘accommodate’ women—women who want to have children, women who want more flexibility in their work, women who simply want a fair shot at the C-suite. But in all the talk about the various things holding women back, about maternity leaves and mentorship programs, flex time and work-life balance, there is no mention of what is actually and obviously and in the most blinding way the crux of the problem: men.”

Friends of mine with big jobs have been saying this for years over the second glass of wine. They nearly always add that younger women don’t believe them. Until now, anyway. Now those women are having second thoughts. Whatever unfolds in the LaCalamita case (it’s still before the courts), that in itself is news.

I’ve long been fascinated by the differing perspectives that older and younger women bring to the place of careers in our lives. Click here to read my reflections.


Posted by Rona

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