One-hundred-year progression of female legal practitioners

August 1st, 2023
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This year marks the centenary since the promulgation of the Women Legal Practitioners Act 7 of 1923. As at the end of January 2022 the demographics of attorneys in the country totalled 29 981. Of that number, female legal practitioners were 12 714, which means that female legal practitioners make up 42% of the attorney’s profession (‘Statistics for the attorneys’ profession’ (www.lssa.org.za)).

In August 2022, the Law Society of South Africa (LSSA) held a series of free webinars where female legal practitioners discussed issues that impacted on their growth in the profession. During the month of August 2023, the LSSA will again hold a series of free webinars on possible solutions for issues facing female legal practitioners, keep a lookout for an invite.

Female legal practitioners face an array of barriers throughout their legal careers, and these barriers differ during their course in the profession. Some of these barriers discussed at the LSSA Women’s Month Webinar Series include:

  • Candidate legal practitioners not being able to take maternity leave.
  • No support and assistance platform for sole proprietors and newly admitted female attorneys.
  • Few networking opportunities for candidate legal practitioners and young attorneys who cannot pay for attending conferences.
  • Sole proprietor practices struggling to afford fees such as the annual subscription fee to the Legal Practice Council and audit fees.
  • Female legal practitioners leaving the profession due to different forms of abuse.

Another aspect that was discussed at the LSSA Women’s Month Webinar Series is that each year, the law graduates being produced by the universities become more representative of South African society, but many of these graduates are unable to gain access to the profession, or to their chosen branch of the profession. If they do gain access, many find themselves practising in circumstances which set them up for failure. The goal of transformation must be a legal profession, which represents the diversity of South African society in all branches and at all levels.

The Judiciary, in partnership with the South African Chapter of the International Association of Women Judges, held a ceremonial sitting in the different divisions of the High Court, across the country to commemorate the centenary of the Women Legal Practitioners Act. During her presentation at the ceremonial sitting at the Gauteng Local Division of the High Court in Johannesburg, President of the LSSA, Eunice Masipa, said that the current structure of the legal profession and the underrepresentation of women fail to accurately mirror the diversity of the country’s population. ‘[Matilda Lasseko-Phooko and Safia Mahomed (2021)] argue that “the preferred approach to understanding gender equality is “substantive equality’’’. Substantive equality is described as an approach that looks at the overall effect of policies that are meant to achieve gender equality. This understanding is rooted in the recognition that inequality within the profession arises from deeply entrenched political, social, and economic disparities between men and women’.

Ms Masipa pointed out that this calls for the understanding that gender equality requires more than simply enacting policies, it requires a nuanced understanding of how those policies will impact different groups of people. Ms Masipa said that it is crucial that women actively work towards combating stereotypes and prejudices that target women. As these can create a lack of opportunities for women. ‘To truly promote gender equality, we must ensure every woman is given a voice and the opportunity to fully participate,’ Ms Masipa said (Kgomotso Ramotsho ‘Celebration of 100 years of women in the practice of law’ (www.derebus.org.za))

I have worked at the LSSA, in different capacities, for the past 14 years and my observation into the profession from the outside looking in, is that: For there to be meaningful change in the progression of women in the legal profession, legal practitioners need to be intentional about transformation. Female legal practitioners must actively assist one another to grow in the profession, otherwise it will take another 100 years before we see any meaningful change. I have attended countless webinars, conference and events where female legal practitioners speak about the issues they face in the profession; however, no practical solutions are advanced. These events end up being a talk shop exercise that bring up the same issues over and over without leading anywhere. Perhaps the time has arrived for female legal practitioners to start discussing solutions instead of issues?

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2023 (Aug) DR 3.

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