The power of girls and women

As many of you may know, October 11 was the International Day of the Girl.

international-day-of-the-girl-logoIn all walks of life we need to do a better job of creating a truly equal society. In commerce, politics and our work environments, girls and women are still not treated equally or fully valued for their contributions.

One of my heroes is Malala Yousafzi. She was shot for simply standing up to the Taliban in Pakistan for the rights of girls to receive the same education as boys. Listening to her being interviewed after her recovery was truly inspiring.

Saudi Arabia has one of the world’s most repressive regimes when it comes to the rights of girls and women. If the Saudi government was as discriminatory based on race as it is based on gender, no doubt there would be a worldwide boycott or perhaps even an embargo of their economy. Yet, because their discrimination is gender-based much of the world turns a blind eye. In Saudi Arabia, women are not even permitted to drive.

I offer the examples above not to minimize in any way the gender discrimination that continues to exist here in Canada, but rather to remind us all that as bad as the situation is here, it is an order of magnitude worse in many other areas of the world.

But let’s take a hard look at some facts that show how women and girls fare here at home in Canada in leadership roles.

According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, as of September this year, Canada ranks a lowly 64th when it comes to the number of women in parliament — only 26% of seats in the House of Commons and 39% of seats in the Senate are held by women. Worldwide, which nation enjoys the largest representation by women in parliament? Rwanda, followed by Bolivia and Cuba!

One way to help fix the gender imbalance in Canada’s or any nation’s parliament is to switch the voting system to proportional representation. On average, 8% more women are elected with pro rep.

When it comes to the highest-paying positions in Canada’s top 100 companies, last year CBC News reported that a mere 8.5% of those jobs are held by women, according to a study by the executive search firm, Rosenzweig & Company. Only 8 of the top 100 companies’ CEOs were women. Believe it or not, this is good news, for the 2006 percentage of women in the top-paying jobs in these 100 companies was only 4.6%.

I can tell you more good news. As a lawyer I’ve witnessed firsthand the literal transformation of the legal landscape when it comes to the participation of women. Just the other day, I read an article in the September issue of Vancouver Bar Association’s magazine, The Advocate, that was a reprint of an article originally published in the same magazine back in 1946. It was written by Hilda S. Cartwright, a pioneering lawyer in the province, who was called to the BC bar in 1921, 11 years after the Law Society had told her that it couldn’t admit women into the legal profession.

In 1910, a woman had not yet been declared a person, and the Law Society at that time not only refused to admit women — it wouldn’t even recognize their ability to understand written correspondence! Today, though, women make up more than half of all new admissions to UBC’s law school.

Women lawyers make up a growing proportion of practising lawyers, and the practice of law is that much better as a result. Women bring to disputes a greater willingness to engage in collaborative negotiations. They are also less inclined to be needlessly confrontational. Now don’t get me wrong — some of my most feared combatants in the courtroom are women. Combative when necessary, yes, but not necessarily combative.

My favourite first-year law professor was a woman. She went on to become what was then a county court judge. Shortly thereafter, she was elevated to the British Columbia Supreme Court, where I had the privilege of appearing before her on two occasions.

What a breath of fresh air! On one of those occasions, I represented the owner of an old, derelict fishing boat that had burned and sunk. My client, the owner, sued the party he believed was responsible for the fire. The defendant hired a very senior counsel. The judge, after listening to both of us speak for only a few moments, came to the very quick realization that our clients were about to spend more on their lawyers than the worth of the old boat! She sent the two of us down the hall, suggesting we have a cup of coffee, and we settled the affair in 10 minutes in the lawyers’ lounge.

She was then elevated again, this time to the British Columbia Court of Appeal. But her meteoric rise did not end there. She was promoted yet again, this time to the Supreme Court of Canada. By now readers may have realized I’m referring to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, the Right Honourable Beverley McLachlin.

Surely this is one more instance that illustrates how our world can be nothing but improved if we all — men and women together — ensure that each and every one of us fulfils our full potential.

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