Obstacles to Female Leadership: In Conversation with Marie Henein

By Sarah Baker

Marie Henein, HHLLP                                                                                                                                   

For female attorneys in Canada, the glass ceiling seems to have hardened into a concrete wall. According to findings by the Catalyst, a global non-profit that assists organizations in advancing women into positions of leadership, female attorneys remain significantly underrepresented in positions of seniority, despite constituting nearly half of all practicing lawyers in Canada. In Ontario, only roughly nine percent of female attorneys become law firm partners, compared to twenty-two percent of men in the field. The challenges to attaining effective leadership positions, specifically in high-profile, controversial fields such as criminal law, was the subject of Marie Henein’s talk “Women and Leadership: What It Takes,” on Tuesday, November 6th, 2018. The event was the latest installment of the Peterson Leadership Speaker Series.

Speaking to a room of graduate Public Policy, Global Affairs and law students, Henein, a senior partner at Henein Hutchison LLP and a renowned Canadian criminal defense lawyer of 25 years, began her talk by addressing the negative perceptions she faces as a woman in the “controversial” field of criminal law. She acknowledges the contention her invitation to participate in the series has spurred at the school, as it has elsewhere. She attributes this controversy to the high-profile cases she takes on, most notably the Jian Gomeshi case in 2016, and the nature of the crimes involved, such as sexual assault. Henein refutes what she recognizes as common accusations that the nature of her work compromises her morality, noting that she simply plays a role, albeit a prominent one, in what she believes is a fair justice system. Divorcing her from her role in the larger system and conflating her beliefs with the clients she serves, she argues, is a gross misrepresentation of her personal views, her role, and the way the justice system operates. Henein notes that while criticism is generally directed to all lawyers in her field, her gender exacerbates these critiques, as the scrutiny and vilification she faces, including being labeled “polarizing” or “dangerous,” often is not levelled toward her male peers.

More generally, Henein discussed the universal obstacles women face in all fields of work on their path to leadership. Women often lack possession of themselves, their image and narrative. This is due to men having historically and globally dominated the discourse regarding female rights, roles and capabilities. The pressure then falls on women in leadership roles to alter their actions and present themselves in a way that is better suited to these narratives, including playing down their intelligence and confidence to seem more benign and relatable. This lack of autonomy to authentically present their true selves renders it a challenge for women to wholly embrace positions of leadership.

Secondly, Henein notes the lack of proper recognition and value that is attributed to women for their life achievements. Rather than be recognized for the tremendous contributions towards their fields, women face fixation by the media and the public on minor unrelated personal factors, such as commentary on their appearance or personal relationships.

Finally, women face undue societal expectations of having to “do it all”. The pressure to miraculously balance domestic work, maintain relationships, and excel in the workplace is unreasonable, and often leads to feelings of guilt and shame when women are unable to balance these competing demands. Henein notes that these same expectations are not placed on men, who are not questioned on the methods they use to manage their family and work lives.

Henein concluded the talk with factors she believes need be addressed to facilitate leadership opportunities for women in the workplace. A crucial first step, she argues, is the removal of financial and educational barriers for women across the world. The second, to alleviate women from societal expectations of having to do it all on their own. Practically, this can be done by having the supportive networks of working women shoulder some of their responsibilities, facilitating their ability to work without guilt or judgement. Thirdly, Henein calls for solidarity and comradery between women, especially in times of disagreement. Finally, she urges people to consciously remove themselves as barriers in the path of women and allow them the freedom and room to exercise their intelligence and skills to carve their own pathways to leadership.


Sarah Baker is currently completing her second year in the Master of Public Policy program at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, with a specialization in public health policy. She currently is a policy intern with the City of Mississauga, and has experience in consulting and the non-profit sector. In the long run, she hopes to influence the development and refinement of health policies to improve the quality and accessibility of mental health services. 

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