Female legal practitioners must respect and support one another

September 29th, 2022

The Law Society of South Africa (LSSA) in collaboration with the Black Lawyers Association (BLA), the National Association of Democratic Lawyers (NADEL), the independent attorneys and the South African Women Lawyers Association (SAWLA) held their final Women’s Month series of webinars on 25 August 2022. The webinar featured Chief Wellness Coordinator at Reality Wellness Group, Nicolette Visser, who spoke about mental health, including some of the struggles that women face in the workplace. She titled her presentation ‘Powerful Women Taking Up Space’. Ms Visser told attendees why she chose that title adding that taking up space has two meanings, and it depends on who you are asking. ‘When we say taking up space, taking up space is basically on one end saying that you are taking up air. You are taking up space, you are using up too much space, which if we look at how the industry is going, often people think that when hiring a woman, it is just for quota system just to get them in’.

She said that women must be allowed to take up space and do what they need to do. She added that sometimes the phrase taking up space can sound a bit condescending. She added that the other term for taking up space is being heard, women being able to use their voice to make and implement change. ‘What we are actually trying to do is say you know what, I am allowed to be heard and I am allowed to be here, and I am allowed to take up space and that is what we really want to do is encourage you to remember that as women, we are allowed to take up space because we are important and we are valued and we have something to contribute,’ Ms Visser added.

Programme director and member of the BLA and member of the LSSA Women’s Task Team, Ncumisa Sotenjwa, during the engagements at the webinar went back to a comment made by the LSSA’s President Mabaeng Denise Lenyai, on how it was suggested she offer tea at one of the meetings she attended when she was still a young legal practitioner by a male counterpart. Ms Sotenjwa added that what was shocking was that Ms Lenyai was not seen as an equal but more of a servant.

Ms Visser said that there is a lack of respect for women in the workplace and there are several different factors that account for why this tends to happen. She added that it is also quite interesting because that tends to become an issue that later becomes part of the reason why women leave the industry and it is not only just the lack of respect, but also the fact that those particular situations tend to sit in the back of one’s mind and they actually start to affect one’s mental health. Ms Visser noted it also starts to play on what is call ‘impostor syndrome’. Ms Visser added that because of that it lands up sitting as an almost traumatic experience that one now sits with for the rest of their life.

Among others who shared their experiences was an attendee who said that some female legal practitioners who experienced trauma as a result of the challenges and bad experiences they have gone through in the legal profession, take it out on their juniors once they are in a position of power. Ms Visser added that there is a psychological term for that called the ‘queen bee’ phenomenon, where you have women who have fought their way to get to a certain position, a management position, a director position, and had to go through so much to get there that eventually they want to retain and make sure that position sticks. Ms Visser pointed out that these types of women tend to start treating all the other women below them in a particular manner. ‘In some instances, it is to teach them and say, “this is what I had to go through”. So, if you want to get there, you have to go through the same thing or alternatively it is because I want to maintain my position,’ Ms Visser added.

Ms Visser noted that people tend to perpetuate certain societal beliefs. She said: ‘We think about certain things saying, it is the patriarchy, or it is men. But at the end of the day, we all perpetuated it in little ways. For example, victim blaming culture when it comes to sexual harassment. The first thought, and it is not just men who say it, is what did you do? What were you wearing? Did you lead him on? Did you do X? Did you do Y?’

Ms Visser said that women need to start asking themselves, how can we be a part of that change? She added that it is very tricky to navigate all the different roles that women expected to take on and as a result it leads to issues with mental health and the fact that legal practitioners, especially women, experience high levels of harassment and not just sexual harassment but all forms of harassment. She pointed out that it was found that the legal industry actually has some of the highest rates of bullying. She said that what you will find is those who are the victims of this bullying are usually women.

Ms Visser added that some other things that you will find within the workplace as a legal practitioner is the issue of sexual harassment and the fact that there is a lot of gender inequality, stereotyping, and discrimination. She pointed out that women try to make certain changes from time to time, but also sometimes tend to feel hopeless or helpless that nothing is going to change or there is not going to be much of a difference. However, Ms Visser said that she wants female legal practitioners to start thinking, that yes, there are certain situations they cannot control fully, but there are certain things they can control, such as their responses to those particular events or those particular situations. Moreover, to start thinking about where they are in control and where they can start making a difference and where can they start taking up space.

Ms Visser spoke about the ‘impostor syndrome’ and explained that it is a deep-rooted fear and anxiety. She said that a lot of women experience it, because either they think they are not good enough or they believe that women when in those roles need to do them perfectly. She said that sometimes there are many unrealistic expectations that tend to feed into impostor syndrome. Ms Visser pointed out that factors to be mindful of that can start to affect your mental health includes work related factors like the glass ceiling effect.

Ms Visser discussed pushback and said when women tend to voice their opinion, then people say, she is acting a little bit crazy, or you are just mad, or they start making one feel like they are being over emotional. Ms Visser pointed out that if a man says something in a particular manner, they say he is assertive, he is a leader or he is powerful. However, when a woman does it in the exact same manner, it is aggressive, she is pushy, or she is over asserting herself. She pointed out that the same behaviour is labelled very differently depending on which gender one is. She added that that is where it becomes quite frustrating, especially in the legal fraternity.

Ms Visser said that women must respect one another. She pointed out that the first person a woman is going to go to is another woman because a woman will feel safer asking for help from a woman.

Kgomotso Ramotsho Cert Journ (Boston) Cert Photography (Vega) is the news reporter at De Rebus.

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