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Women, law, and alcohol

The wine-loving woman has become something of a stereotype, at least in certain corners of North American pop culture. Picture Scandal’s Olivia Pope – trained as a lawyer – and there’s probably a large glass of red wine in one hand and a big bowl of popcorn in the other. It’s no different in the real-world legal profession, where events for women lawyers often feature wine as the focal point.

Wine corks

That’s just the way it is, I thought.

And then I read this article by Kristi Coulter, which went viral over the summer (be warned: it contains lots of swears) and woke me up to the connection between the pressures that professional women face, and the social pressures to drink. Coulter wrote, “there’s no easy way to be a woman, because, as you may have noticed, there’s no acceptable way to be a woman. And if there’s no acceptable way to be the thing you are, then maybe you drink a little. Or a lot.”

Coulter’s article is all about questioning why women are being sent the messages (through pop culture, yes, but also by our colleagues, friends, and families) that drinking is a survival mechanism, and that alcohol should be the centre of every activity – even yoga?!

It shouldn't be that way.

Ashley Csanady, commenting on Coulter’s piece, pointed out that: “Canada’s chief public officer of health last year found [that] ‘risky drinking is currently on the rise among women, especially those 35 years of age and older.’” And we see headlines all the time about how rates of substance abuse, including alcohol addiction, are notoriously, and dangerously, high among lawyers.

There are other, quieter consequences too. Alcohol-centric events can isolate lawyers who don’t drink, especially when their colleagues pressure them about why. If I’m drinking Perrier at “happy hour”, I always feel the need to explain myself (“I have my ballet class after this so I’m sticking to the H2O!”). My best friend, a successful lawyer in Toronto, chooses not to drink, and still feels like she lost out on her east coast law school experience because so many of our social events were based on not just drinking, but binge-drinking.

Interestingly, my father does not drink, but he has been a lawyer for 38 years and managed to successfully navigate every client reception with a can of Coke instead of a cocktail. He gets gently teased (especially by his hockey team) but I don’t think he feels the same anxiety about it that many women do. Maybe it’s because, as Coulter notes, women are dealing with such intense pressure in so many other areas of life as well.

So what can we do about it? I have four suggestions, which reflect promises I made to myself after reading and thinking about Coulter’s article this summer:

  • First, if you, like me, plan a lot of legal networking and professional development events for the CBA or other organizations, don’t make them all about alcohol. I’m not saying alcohol shouldn’t be available for those who choose to partake – it just shouldn’t be the focal point (we can get more creative than wine tastings, I know it). If we want our profession to be more inclusive, we need to think about the kinds of messages we’re sending with our social events, and whom we’re including (and excluding).
  • Second, don’t question someone about why they’re not drinking. Maybe they have chosen not to drink for religious reasons; maybe they are confronting addiction; maybe they are newly pregnant; maybe they just don’t like the taste. If you offer a drink and the recipient says no, leave it at that.
  • Third, don’t automatically suggest alcohol as a way to solve someone’s bad day or personal crisis. They might want to talk about it over a drink, sure, but they might also want to grab a cup of tea and go for a walk. Sorrows don’t always need to be drowned.
  • Finally, know where to look for lawyers’ assistance programs and other resources, like the CBA’s course on Mental Health and Wellness in the Legal Profession.

Changing your own thinking is the first step. Changing stereotypes is a tougher task. But if we can stop putting alcohol on a pedestal, our profession will be better for it.