The Unsung Hero column is intended to introduce a member of our profession who has demonstrated extraordinary leadership, innovation, commitment, or made significant contributions to social justice and community affairs.
Krista Isberg and Elysa Hogg formed the Calgary Women Studying Law Association (CWSLA) in the spring of 2015 at the University of Calgary.
At the time, Krista chaired Calgary LEAF and led PBSC’s Discovery House Project. Elysa was Vice President Academic of the Society of Law Students. In these positions, Krista and Elysa wound up in numerous conversations – primarily with the women in the Faculty of Law – where their peers confided in them with stories of non-trivial harassment. They were frustrated to learn about the range and extent of the harassment that was occurring, but not surprised.
In one case, a peer was told by a senior partner at a law firm that he would never hire her because she was too attractive. In another, a female student had a male associate put his hand on her thigh under the table during a recruitment lunch. In yet another, a partner told a student she wasn't worth hiring because she would eventually "just go off and have babies anyways".
Despite encouraging these women to report their experiences, it became clear that the students were not prepared to make a formal complaint. "As a student, you are vulnerable to the job market and those who control it. No one wanted to be blacklisted, and no one knew if they’d be taken seriously," said Krista.
With permission from their peers, Krista and Elysa approached the Faculty, and identified some of the common behaviors that they had witnessed, which they saw as being harmful to women law students. They told Faculty members of the overt sexualization of female peers by male students, derogatory comments about women as leaders, and unwillingness on the part of female students to speak up for fear of being socially ostracized. In order to change this environment, Krista and Elysa wanted to create a space for women to have these conversations, and to develop the skill-set needed to combat sexism in the profession.
CWSLA started with a two-part mission.
First, Krista and Elysa aimed to change the learning and social environment in the Faculty of Law. To achieve this, CWSLA set out to have conversations around gender equality in the Faculty that not only reinforced women’s voices and opinions, but saw them as valuable and necessary. Male students were included in select events, in order to provide strong examples of male leaders combatting sexism in the profession.
Second, CWSLA aimed to provide female law students with the mentorship opportunities that many women felt they were being left out of due to the gendered nature of many marketing events. A series of events were held that brought female students together with female mentor-lawyers in the first five years of call.
Now, the events have changed with as the interest of the executive committee, but the annual "Sexual Harassment Toolbox" event remains. At this annual event, students and mentors get together to discuss the sexism they have experienced, and the tactics and strategies used for dealing with it. "In the end, students walk away with a toolbox of strategies and in most cases, a few business cards they can rely on if they ever need to seek advice" says Elysa.
Since starting the organization, both Krista and Elysa have been surprised to realize that many of the more senior men and women in the legal profession believe that the problem of sexual harassment no longer exists for women. It has been particularly rewarding to watch more senior practitioners meet with law students and junior associates and, through honest dialogue, understand that although the form of sexism and harassment may not be the same, it still remains.
Krista and Elysa have been proud to see opportunities for mentorship develop into friendships as a result of their work.
CWSLA is currently rounding-out its second successful year, and a new executive committee has been appointed from the current ranks of the University of Calgary’s law student population. Both Elysa and Krista have been excited to watch the organization continue to grow as they remain on the executive committee in an advisory capacity.
Do you know an Unsung Hero? Tell us about them. If you know a lawyer who deserves to be recognized, please send us an email to email@example.com with the lawyer’s name and the reasons why you believe they are an “unsung hero”. The only formal requirements for nomination are that our “unsung hero” be an Alberta Lawyer and a CBA member.