A Wild Feminist at Her Raving Best: Reflections on Studying Gender Bias in the Legal Profession

By Brockman, Joan | Resources for Feminist Research, January 1, 2000 | Go to article overview
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A Wild Feminist at Her Raving Best: Reflections on Studying Gender Bias in the Legal Profession


Brockman, Joan, Resources for Feminist Research


This paper examines the use of face-to-face interviews and self-response questionnaires as methods for studying issues of gender bias in the legal profession. It draws on personal interviews with 50 women and 50 men called to the bar in British Columbia and the construction of, and responses to, four self-response questionnaires (for members and former members of the Law Society of British Columbia and for active and inactive members of the Law Society of Alberta). In order to illustrate how questions about gender bias in the legal profession might be constructed from a feminist perspective, the paper examines issues surrounding the definition and study of: (1) gender bias and discrimination; (2) sexual harassment; (3) gender harassment; and (4) the combining of career, children, and chores.

Introduction

"This questionnaire appears to have been prepared by a wild feminist at her raving best! Why do we waste our time and money on such things?"

(Respondent to a survey of members of the Law Society of Alberta, 1991)

The colourful description above was scrawled over the top of a questionnaire from one of four surveys I completed between 1989 and 1992 of current and former members for the Law Society of British Columbia (Brockman, 1992b, 1992c), and of both active and inactive members for the Law Society of Alberta (Brockman, 1992a, 1994). The questionnaires used in the Alberta surveys were similar to those used in the British Columbia surveys, and they have been considered by other law societies across Canada.(1) Following these surveys, I conducted personal interviews in 1993-94 with a stratified random sample of 50 women and 50 men who had been called to the Bar in British Columbia between 1986 and 1990, and who were still members when the sample was drawn in 1993 (Brockman, under review).

In the context of studying gender issues in the legal profession, this paper examines research methods, methodology, and the politics of constructing questionnaires with committees in an organization that is the governing body of the group being studied (in this case, the law society committees in British Columbia and Alberta). It then examines some of the shortcomings of these questionnaires and of the interview questions, in light of feminist perspectives on the study of gender bias in the legal profession. The research methods or tools used, in this case questionnaires and interviews, do not necessarily preclude or presume a feminist perspective (Brockman and Phillippe, 1991; Reinharz, 1992). Rather, it is at the methodological level that feminism can have an impact on research. How does one ask questions about what appears problematic from women lawyers' perspectives? How does one ask questions which reflect the "lived experiences" of the respondents?

In order to illustrate how questions about gender bias in the legal profession might be constructed from a feminist perspective, the paper then examines issues surrounding the definition and study of: (1) "gender bias" and "discrimination"; (2) sexual harassment; (3) gender harassment; and (4) the combining of career, children, and chores. While it is necessary to provide some of the results of my studies for illustrative purposes, this paper is designed to address the questions asked, not the results obtained. Finally, I ask the question: what about male lawyers? Do we ask questions about whether men face discrimination, and do we ask men our questions?

Research Methods

The use of two different research methods (a mail-out, self-response questionnaire and face-to-face interviews) raises questions about whether one of the methods used, the mail-out questionnaire, could ask questions "for women lawyers." There are some who believe that there are distinctive feminist methods, and that a mail-out questionnaire with quantitative results is not one of them. I am of the view, however, that there is no distinctive feminist method; rather, there are feminist epistemological and methodological approaches to whatever research method is used (Brockman and Phillippe, 1991).

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