NADEL holds gender transformation dialogue session in Gauteng

November 27th, 2015

By Kathleen Kriel

The National Association of Democratic Lawyers (NADEL) Gauteng Branch held a dialogue session and panel discussion on gender transformation within the legal profession at the offices of Webber Wentzel on 24 October.

NADEL has undertaken this research project, which is focused on gender transformation of the legal profession, after research conducted by the Centre for Applied Legal Studies and the Foundation for Human Rights was released in 2014. The research findings, which were from a small sample within the legal profession, point to critical shortcomings and a serious lack of gender transformation within the legal profession.

Through this project, NADEL aims to conduct interviews and have produced an online research questionnaire, from where they will draw insight on the issue of gender transformation. The research findings will be contained in a report, which NADEL will use to advocate for transformation of the profession. The information will also be circulated to relevant government departments, as well as professional bodies.

The aim of the dialogue session is to stimulate debates on the barriers and challenges women face within the legal profession.

Vice-chairperson of National Association of Democratic Lawyers (NADEL) Johannesburg, Zenobia Wadee, welcomed delegates at the NADEL Gauteng dialogue session and panel discussion.

Vice-chairperson of National Association of Democratic Lawyers (NADEL) Johannesburg, Zenobia Wadee, welcomed delegates at the NADEL Gauteng dialogue session and panel discussion.

Zenobia Wadee, vice-chairperson of NADEL Johannesburg, welcomed delegates, who consisted of judges, advocates, magistrates, attorneys and academics to the event. ‘This discussion takes place in the country where there is a lot of debate on transformation in the judiciary, transformation in the legal profession and a lot of contention about briefing patterns. The legal profession constitutes the pool from where judicial officers are appointed. Therefore, a transformed legal profession is a pre-requisite for a transformed judiciary,’ Ms Wadee said.

Ms Wadee added that the work environment needs to be conducive to training female lawyers and that there is a vital need to create such an environment but this seems to have been overlooked. ‘There is still unofficial bias, which remain and these are unfortunately deeply embedded into society and is one of the hurdles, which undermines transformation. … Transformation is required by the Constitution. Transformation means change and the change that is desired is change that will improve the circumstances of the people of South Africa and that reflects the values, which is enshrined in the Constitution,’ Ms Wadee said.

NADEL’s joint gender coordinator in Johannesburg, Rehana Rawat, delivered the opening address to delegates.

NADEL’s joint gender coordinator in Johannesburg, Rehana Rawat, delivered the opening address to delegates.

Rehana Rawat, advocate and NADEL’s joint gender coordinator in Johannesburg, delivered the opening address. She started her speech by referring to the response of advocate Peter Fischer, at his interview with the Judicial Services Commission, when he was asked: Why does gender equity matter?

‘This nephew, of the late great Bram Fischer, responded: “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, but sometimes women are more level headed and inclined to be less agitated. While men were egotistical, women bring a balancing and placating atmosphere to that reality. Women bring a soft motherly approach.” To an audience such as this, judges, both permanent and acting, advocates of the High Court, attorneys, magistrates, leaders of section nine organisations and human rights practitioners, I ask you, is this patronising, condescending, no-brainer response the exception in a country, 21 years into its new democracy? … Has 21 years been enough, in itself, to transform the deeply entrenched and systemic bias and prejudice of generations of indoctrination?’

Ms Rawat said the focus is on gender bias in the legal system itself and what the responsibility is of the legal community in neutralising inappropriate gender stereotypes. She added that the legal profession falls within the highest echelon of South African society and that many of the delegates in attendance had made it against all odds. Ms Rawat asked: ‘How do we harness this wealth of skill, opportunity and collective power to foster a society, which honestly and truly creates stability on a platter of an equal playing field in which all truly participate?’

Ms Rawat told delegates the most abused group internationally is that of women with disabilities. She said to tackle the genre; we first need to educate ourselves on what disability is. Self-
education is important to understand disability or the differently abled and it can only be done by equipping and sharing the education we have with those around us on a daily basis. ‘In South African judicial society, we need only to look at our courts, how do they facilitate and accommodate people with disabilities? How many government or big corporate buildings, even newly built ones, comply with statutory requirements or regulations to accommodate this group? At the most elementary level, each one of us here can contribute to the education on this issue to civil society,’ she said.

According to Ms Rawat, Aids, alcohol, drug abuse and poverty are also considered disabilities. All of these conditions are impairments, which limit capacity and the ability to reach one’s full potential. ‘The scourge of each of these conditions has infiltrated the very fabric of South African society and the most inexcusable … is the widening ravine between the rich and the poor. … The term gender is really a misnomer, or perhaps it is, on further reflection, it may be the most correct. … It encompasses a range of human conditions, which by their very nature, form the essence of any strategy or plan of action to neutralise negative trends and foster healthy, realistic, long-term and uplifting thinking,’ Ms Rawat said. She added that the challenge was that it was a real and significant problem and because it was a systemic problem, there is no single answer or solution.

Ms Rawat noted that the law needs to meet its commitment that everyone is equal before the law and that everyone will be treated fairly, justly and similarly. ‘As members of the legal fraternity, we ought to hold it dear to our hearts. On a collective level, we should be vocal to gender bias in the legal system itself. … We should investigate if gender stereotyping is being inculcated through the law taught at law schools. Let us consider the attitude prevalent at the Bar and the Law Society of South Africa. Who and what practices reinforce these attitudes? … We must know what we are trying to achieve when we appoint people to the Bench,’ said Ms Rawat.

Ms Rawat added that if the judiciary wants to attract more women and people with disabilities, then more would have to be done to facilitate initiatives in judicial and legal professional education. ‘These groups will bring with them, if well selected, the element of deeper awareness of community realities, values and reservations. … A reflective judiciary is fundamental for the mainstreaming of a workplace that is in every way possible enabling to support, contentment and empowerment to its judges in order for them to perform their judicial duties to the best of their ability. … The judiciary has the same, if not a higher, duty of care to its workers who serve on the Bench. It has to become less daunting, less of a pressure cooker work environment. … Be the commitment to be the change we want as a society and as a community,’ said Ms Rawat.

Panel discussion

A panel discussion was also held on the morning, the panelists included, Farhana Docrat, advocate at the Johannesburg Bar, Erica Emdon, Director at ProBono.Org, and Princess Magopane, researcher and clerk at the Office of the Chief Justice. The session was about sharing their experiences on being a woman in the legal profession.

Views from a mini-questionnaire

Director at ProBono.Org, Erica Emdon, created an informal questionnaire with a sample group of ten women at her office and their experience of the legal profession.

Director at ProBono.Org, Erica Emdon, created an informal questionnaire with a sample group of ten women at her office and their experience of the legal profession.

Ms Emdon said that she saw the plight of women in personal terms. She referred to feminist writings, which focused on women in the home and patriarchy at a personal level and how it would affect a woman’s ability to participate in the job market. The writings called it the ‘dual shift phenomenon’ where women have a dual shift responsibility for childcare, managing the household and also conducting a personal career. ‘No matter how much we believe that there are legislative and policy documents that have moved forward in this country, I do still believe that women face this personalised responsibility at the home, which I believe still affects the way we are and our opportunities as professionals. … I think we also deal with patriarchy in the home and in society, which again is a personally experienced manifestation of discrimination and we see it in respect of our clients and in respect of our professional life, but I believe there is also a personal element of this, that requires constant confrontation and constant monitoring,’ Ms Emdon said.

Ms Emdon said for her part of the discussion, she had done an informal questionnaire with a sample group of ten women at her office. The sample included women who were black and white and consisted over an age range of approximately 25 to 60 years.

She noted that when she asked the group if they had personally experienced obstacles in the legal profession, because they were women, all the women answered yes. Ms Emdon added that in the research sample group, some of the women felt that if they were promoted above their male peers they would be resented by their colleagues. Ms Emdon continued by saying: ‘Women were seen to not get jobs because the concept was that they would soon get married and have children, so they would be interviewed on a number of occasions and not get the job, especially if they were young, as the concept is that when you are young you are going to go off and have children.’

Ms Emdon said she asked the group, what they thought the challenges would be in the current legal environment. She said the feeling was that women have to work harder as they felt that they were being watched to see if they would make mistakes. ‘One of the younger attorneys, interestingly, felt that there was an assumption that woman lawyers cannot be objective and get too emotionally involved,’ she said.

Ms Emdon added that there was a feeling that women in the law sector did not earn as much as their male counterparts, especially in big firms and that the number of women in management in big firms were fewer.

‘I asked whether having children impacts on their experience as legal professionals. People said yes, there should be crèches at work, especially in the big firms, where there are gyms at work for the staff, but not crèches. People felt that flexibility was not followed at companies, and often if women do ask for flexible hours, they are paid less, despite the fact that they may be doing a lot of work at home, and actually working more than their eight hours,’ she said.

Ms Emdon noted the women expressed that they felt guilty for taking maternity leave and added that the women who were from big firms also said that having children affects profitability of practice and delays women from progressing in terms of earnings and progression of their careers. ‘It is hard to rebuild your practice after you come back from maternity leave,’ Ms Emdon said, and added that the group felt that having their own law firm was a much easier option in terms of flexibility; however, it is difficult as they have to find their own work opportunities.

Ms Emdon concluded by saying that over the past few years, she came across the leadership of various institutions and felt that they were very male orientated. ‘I find it incredibly disappointing that there are so few women, and I find the attitude still very male dominated, it feels sometimes that I am back in my law firm in 1990 … . I think that there is still a deep disrespect operating at a personal level. … At the end of the day, I still believe that you can have this legal framework, which is really positive and progressive, and has moved into a progressive period of being, but I feel we still have a lot of work in a personal level. … Leadership at the legal institutions in our society is the key for all of us,’ Ms Emdon said.

Advocate at the Johannesburg Bar, Farhana Docrat, discussed her experiences in the panel discussion held on 24 October.

Advocate at the Johannesburg Bar, Farhana Docrat, discussed her experiences in the panel discussion held on 24 October.

Women against women

After the first part of the presentation, one of the delegates in attendance commented that as far as gender transformation was concerned, her experience was that it did not come necessarily from men, but from female counterparts and until it was researched why women are intimidated by other women, we will not get anywhere.

Ms Docrat agreed with the delegate and said that she experienced the same when she started her pupilage in 1993. Ms Docrat recalled the first time she walked into her spinster’s office. ‘A female master is called a spinster, she invited me to walk in and sit down and before [I could sit], she said “I know you are here to find a husband, so I am not going to waste your time and you will not waste mine… .” She refused to let me look at briefs. She made me answer her telephone. She would send me to the supermarket to buy her sweets before we went to court. She would make me carry her bag. She would exclude me from consultations and the only brief I was allowed to look at were divorce particulars and rule 43 opposing affidavits. So you are absolutely right … and the only reason I am sitting here, having practiced continuously for 23 years is because there was an advocate, who for whatever reason, decided I had something. If it was not for judge Jappie, if it was not for the late judge Pius Langa, if it was not for judges Skweyiya and Bakwa, I would not be sitting here,’ Ms Docrat said.


The next panelist, Ms Magopane said she was probably the most junior member of the panel and most probably in the room, but she wanted to give the delegates an idea of her experience in the legal profession. Ms Magopane said there was a reason why the word candidate attorney appeared so many times on her CV. She said that after qualifying for her BA degree, she opted to register for the five year articles and complete her LLB simultaneously. She recalled how during the first interview she went to, the first question the lady interviewing her asked was: ‘How many children do you have?’ Ms Magopane said: ‘I was dumbfounded. I could not answer the question because I thought it was wrong on so many levels. Firstly, she was assuming that because I am black, I must have children and I must have more than one. I found myself reluctant to go on with the interview.’

Researcher and clerk at the Office of the Chief Justice, Princess Magopane, said that she had to run around and make tea, while doing her articles.

Researcher and clerk at the Office of the Chief Justice, Princess Magopane, said that she had to run around and make tea, while doing her articles.

Ms Magopane said on the next position she had, she had to run around and make tea, even though there were people appointed to do so. She said that she left the job without legal experience. ‘I did not feel as though I would be a competent legal practitioner and I was afraid that had I stayed on and completed my articles and got my degree, I would not be admitted because I knew nothing. All I knew was how to make tea and make people smile,’ she said.

Ms Magopane said she did not give up on law and after completing her LLB, she completed her articles at a non-governmental organisation and it was a completely different experience as her opinion mattered. Ms Magopane said a number of her friends who also studied law never went on to practice.

Ms Magopane added that she agreed with the sentiment of the delegate in the audience that the biggest challenges are from women and that men are more willing to take a chance on women. ‘I found that most of the opportunities I received did not come from women, but from men. … There are women who go through the difficulties and eventually they get to the top then they do not pull other women up. … I have friends who have done rotations in law firms and every time they work with a senior female partner, they are more miserable than when they work with male partners in the law firm,’ she said.

Ms Magopane said her experience as a black woman had also been disheartening. ‘I found that black women are still lagging behind and it has nothing to do with competence or skills … but people are reluctant to give black women a chance over any other race. … We also have to focus on the racial dynamics in the groups as well,’ she said.

In giving her experience, Ms Docrat said: ‘I started practice at a time when women were not wanted. There were four women advocates at the Durban Bar and when I walked into a court room the first reaction was what is this Indian girl doing here? … There were judges who treated me like I was a school girl.’


At the discussion, delegates were asked to complete a questionnaire to assist NADEL with the research project. Questions in the questionnaire included questions on –

  • personal aspects;
  • legal training and admission;
  • work experience; and
  • gender transformation.

If you would like to complete the questionnaire, e-mail

Kathleen Kriel  BTech (Journ) (TUT) is the production editor at De Rebus.

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2015 (Dec) DR 18.