In the name of equality, Breanna Needham, a lawyer in Toronto called to the bar in 2016, wants lawyers to use one unisex change room at Osgoode Hall, the stately Georgian building in downtown Toronto that houses both the Law Society of Ontario and the Ontario Court of Appeal.
A petition she started on the social action website change.org points out that there are 12 lockers in the change room for women but 75 lockers in the change room for men.
This disparity in availability of lockers, she writes on the website, is “just one representative example of the systemic inequality that is pervasive in the legal profession.” Since half the practicing lawyers in Ontario are women, she reasons that “there is no basis upon which they should be allocated this much less than the men in anything in the profession, let alone space.”
Fair enough. If it is cramped quarters in the female change room at Osgoode Hall, then let’s see if we can find more space.
Turning the argument into a human rights complaint and demanding unisex washrooms, however, seems like an overly dramatic solution to a simple problem, and seems like a solution that ignores difference. I wouldn’t want to be changing with the opposite sex in the same room and I know there are women who feel the same way I do.
In an interview, she doubles down on her human rights complaint. “[T]he robing rooms also serve as gathering places where lawyers network and talk about their work,” she said. “Shutting women out of those discussions excludes them from mentoring, informal negotiations and other potentially career-advancing connections. There’s a barrier here and it has an effect. [A]ll should be able to access it equally.”
Considering that construction of Osgoode Hall started in 1821, and it wasn’t until 1897 when the first woman, Clara Brett Martin, was called to the bar, the more likely reason the female change room is smaller than the men’s is that there were simply not a lot of women practicing law when a change room of their own was first built, and not as she purports, a consciously imposed barrier against women advancing in the legal profession.
Certainly, the disparity in the number of lockers or size of the change rooms was a not barrier to Bertha Wilson being appointed as the first female Justice to the Supreme Court of Canada and before that in 1975, as the first female judge of the Ontario Court of Appeal. Nor was the size of the change rooms at Osgoode Hall a barrier to Laura Legge Q.C., in 1975, being elected the first female to the governing body of the Law Society of Upper (as it was known then) and twice elected to lead it.
Needham’s criticism that men-only clubs deprive women of networking opportunities is valid. But those days are long gone. Her conclusion about what goes on in the male change room is based on an article in Canadian Lawyer magazine that described the room as having the feeling “inside … of a male locker room in an old-money golf and country club.”
I use the room regularly. It is a nice change room, but regardless of its feel it’s still simply a change room with lockers and a doorless entrance to the washroom area. No one sits around drinking brandy out of crystal snifters smoking cigars.
I asked a female colleague what her side of Osgoode Hall was like and I invited her to the men’s side for comparison. She confirmed that her change room was 1/3 the size but it had all the same amenities; desk, couch, chairs, and phone.
Another female colleague found Needham’s comments to the media that “women need access to men for mentorship in order to succeed in the legal profession” insulting to the many fine female barristers. Perhaps Needham is not aware that since 2007, the Law Society has selected a recipient of the Laura Legge award to recognize women in Ontario who have exemplified leadership in the legal profession.
Unfortunately, female members of the Toronto Lawyers Association (TLA) that oversee the change rooms at the Superior Court of Ontario at 361 University Avenue in Toronto, after reading about Needham in the media, counted the number of lockers there for men and found that the men had more lockers and space than women.
One woman was shouted down when she explained that a reason could be personal lockers can be purchased for a yearly fee with TLA membership. If the women lawyers want more lockers for themselves then they can pay for it.
The triviality of these arguments is not lost on the public. As one reader wrote in a comment section to the online news coverage of her story, “These are the kinds of ideas that a very expensive education gets you? We are screwed.” Other comments veered toward the prurient.
The reality is that women, primarily in Western countries, have made dramatic advancement. So much so that Needham and the 600 people who signed her petition must look with microscopes for any perceived micro-aggression, like locker room space, in order to feel relevant.
No wonder a 2019 survey of 2,039 women in the U.S. reported that 54 per cent of millennial women did not identify as feminists.
If there is a demand for more lockers, then let’s see what can be done.