You can tell that the Right Honourable Beverley McLachlin did not leave her lawyer days behind her on the Supreme Court bench.
On February 28 at the Isabel Bader Theatre, the former Chief Justice and only woman to hold that role delivered her speech to a full house about the barriers that weigh women down on the career ladder to leadership.
The event was hosted by the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy as part of the Women and Leadership series of the David Peterson Public Leadership Program. David and Shelley Peterson and former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci were in the crowd.
Speaking from both her 17 years of experience as Chief Justice and the numerous statistical reports and studies she cited, McLachlin outlined her argument in a logical manner.
First, she established the central question that her argument addressed.
“[A New York Times Magazine] article… says that from the 1970s to the 1990s, women made serious progress in the workplace, achieving higher positions,” McLachlin said. “And then — there are numerous studies showing this — the progress stalled… So why, and what can we do about it?”
She then went on to highlight a popular counter-argument that women have an innate lack of drive or ability. She rebutted this claim with examples, including a study conducted by Harvard Business School Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter that concluded that a lack of ambition or competency in women was not a self-imposed barrier to leadership.
Finally, she brought attention to and provided solutions for the five fundamental barriers she would be examining that night: absence of role models, overt discrimination, subconscious bias, marriage and parenting, and pay inequity.
When she addressed the lack of role models, McLachlin recounted her childhood fascination with Queen Elizabeth II.
“As a little girl, I made my parents buy the Saturday edition of the Toronto Star every week, which offered extensive coverage of the royal wedding and coronation. And I would spend my weekend cutting out the photos and pasting them in my scrapbooks,” she said. “In hindsight, I came to the view that perhaps, I was craving some sort of role model… I think the fact that I was so mesmerized by this person, this young woman, attests to a deep longing that was inside me.”
McLachlin also saw a need to reject discrimination in its overt and subconscious forms, which mires the careers of women.
McLachlin herself experienced discrimination throughout her career. In 1968, when she was 23 years old, she was a married, Gold-Medal-winning law graduate from the University of Alberta seeking apprenticeship at a firm. When she interviewed at the first firm on her list, the interviewer asked her out of curiosity why she would want to work. After all, she was married.
Nevertheless, McLachlin concluded that the barriers could be and must be removed.
“Every time a woman is appointed or promoted to an important position, a powerful message is sent: women can do this,” she said. “I will never forget the mothers and fathers bringing their little girls and sometimes their little boys forward to me… how proudly they would say, looking directly into the eyes of their little daughter, ‘This is our Chief Justice.’”
When asked by The Varsity if she ever felt like she didn’t have the luxury to fail as a pioneer in her position, McLachlin said, “One fails at many small things… And I think that’s an important facet of leadership too. You have to be strong, you have to [get] through.”
“Many times during my career I really felt inadequate and discouraged, but I never allowed myself to think that failure was an option. And I carried on.”