Promoting gender equality in the legal profession is essential

August 1st, 2023
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By Kgomotso Ramotsho

Legal administrator Busisiwe Beverly Zwane, was born in Pretoria, and grew up in Dennilton and Witbank. Ms Zwane attended Hoërskool Patriot and after completing matric, she proceeded to the University of South Africa (Unisa) to study law. She has five siblings, whom she is very close to. Ms Zwane spoke highly of her parents who were both school principals, who she describes as very supportive towards their children’s dreams.

Kgomotso Ramotsho (KG): Why did you choose to study law?

Busisiwe Zwane (BZ): I was drawn to the study of law because I have a strong sense of justice and a desire to make a positive impact in society. I see the law as a means to advocate for individuals or groups who may not have a voice and to bring about legal and social change.

Furthermore, law is a complex and dynamic field that requires analytical thinking, problem-solving skills, and a deep understanding of legal principles. I am attracted to the intellectual rigor and the challenge of mastering the intricate legal framework.

A law degree offers a wide range of career opportunities. Beyond traditional practice as a lawyer, law graduates can work in fields such as corporate law, government, academia, non-profit organisations, consulting, or even start their own legal firm. The versatility of a law degree attracts individuals who are interested in exploring different paths within the legal profession.

Studying law equips individuals with a set of transferable skills that are highly valued in various professions. These skills include critical thinking, research abilities, effective communication, negotiation, and problem-solving, which can be applied to roles outside the legal field as well.

 

KR: You are in your last year of tertiary studies and working at a law firm, how do you balance, studying and working?

BZ: Balancing work and school is demanding, as both require significant time and effort. Managing my time effectively is crucial. Creating a schedule that allows for dedicated study time while accommodating my work responsibilities. I prioritise tasks, set realistic goals, and adhere to deadlines to ensure I stay on track.

Juggling a demanding academic curriculum with professional obligations can lead to a heavy workload. It is important that I am organised and develop effective study habits. I focus on one task at a time. Additionally, I communicate with my employer about my academic commitments to ensure a reasonable workload distribution.

The combination of work and school is mentally and physically exhausting. It is crucial to take care of my well-being. I try and get sufficient rest and set aside time for leisure activities and socialising to prevent burnout.

Work and school might have conflicting schedules, such as exams or work assignments that require significant attention simultaneously. I therefore plan and communicate with my employer and professors to find solutions. I also seek flexibility in my work schedule when necessary.
Balancing work, school, and personal life is essential for overall well-being. I dedicate time for relaxation, hobbies, church and spending time with family and friends. I also communicate my boundaries and limitations to my employer and colleagues, ensuring they understand my need for personal time. It is also important to remember to prioritise self-care to avoid feeling overwhelmed.
The demands of work and school can lead to increased stress levels. Developing effective stress management techniques, such as exercise, mindfulness, or seeking support from friends, family, or counsellors is important. I also identify and address sources of stress proactively and seek help when needed. While working in a law firm during your final year can provide valuable practical experience, it is crucial not to neglect networking and professional development opportunities. So, I attend legal seminars, join relevant professional associations such as the National Association of Democratic Lawyers (NADEL), and build connections within the legal community. One must also take advantage of your workplace to gain exposure to different areas of law and seek guidance from experienced lawyers. Remember, effective communication and time management are key to balancing work and school successfully and proactively seeking support from your employer, professors, and peers when needed. By prioritising tasks, maintaining a healthy work-life balance, and managing stress effectively, you can navigate the challenges and succeed both academically and professionally.

 

KR: As the chairperson of the student chapter of NADEL at Unisa, what are some of the challenges your organisation looks to address, especially at university level?

BZ: As the chairperson of the student chapter of NADEL at Unisa, our organisation seeks to focus on addressing several challenges at the university level by focusing on the following:

  • Access to justice: We work towards promoting equal access to justice for all students, particularly those from marginalised backgrounds.
  • Human rights education: Raising awareness about human rights issues among students, encouraging dialogue, and organising educational programmes.
  • Social justice advocacy: Engaging in advocacy and activism on issues related to social justice, such as gender equality, racial justice, disability rights, and economic inequality.
  • Legal empowerment: Empowering students by providing them with legal knowledge and skills that can help them navigate legal challenges. This involves conducting workshops on legal literacy, offering internships or mentorship programmes, and facilitating networking opportunities with legal professionals.
  • Collaboration and networking: Fostering collaboration and networking opportunities with other student chapters of NADEL or similar organisations at different universities. This helps to facilitate knowledge sharing, joint initiatives, and the exchange of best practices to address common challenges.

 

KR: As a young person who is vocal about issues that are affecting other young people in the legal profession, how important it is for you to be a part of the engagements that talk to the transformation of the legal profession. What makes you want to be involved, vocal and advocate for transformation?

BZ: The legal profession, like any other field, should be reflective of the diverse population it serves. By being involved in transformation discussions, I contribute so that I can ensure that historically disadvantaged groups, including young people, have a voice and are adequately represented in the legal profession. This inclusivity fosters a more equitable and just system.

Transformation efforts aim to enhance access to justice for all individuals in society. By advocating for change, we can contribute to the development of policies and practices that address the barriers faced by young people and marginalised groups. This can help make the legal profession more accessible, affordable, and responsive to the needs of the broader population.

Transformation seeks to eliminate discriminatory practices and promote equal opportunities within the legal profession. Being involved allows us to push for reforms that address biases, prejudices, and systemic barriers that may prevent young people from entering or progressing in the legal field. This creates a level playing field and promotes diversity in legal workplaces.

Engaging in transformation discussions provides an opportunity for personal and professional growth. By actively participating, we as young people can expand our knowledge, network with like-minded individuals, and gain a deeper understanding of the challenges and opportunities within the legal profession. This involvement can enhance our advocacy skills, broaden our perspectives, and contribute to our development as young professionals.

As a young person, my involvement in transformation efforts today can have a lasting impact on the legal profession in South Africa (SA). By being vocal and advocating for change, I can help shape policies, practices, and cultural shifts that will benefit future generations of legal professionals. My active participation can contribute to a more inclusive, diverse, and socially conscious legal system. Ultimately, being involved, vocal, and advocating for transformation in the legal profession demonstrates our commitment to positive change and our desire to create a more inclusive and equitable society. By actively participating in these discussions, we can help shape the future of the legal profession in SA and contribute to a fairer justice system for all.

 

KR: Reading about the history of how women fought to be in the legal profession, now that they are in the legal profession, do you feel like they are treated equally as their male counterparts in this profession, are they being given fair and equal opportunities?

BZ: Historically, women faced significant challenges and barriers to entering the legal profession in SA. However, over time, concerted efforts were made to address gender inequality, promote inclusivity, and provide equal opportunities for women in law.

While progress has been made, it is worth noting that gender equality remains a work in progress in the legal profession, as it does in many other industries. Women still face some barriers and disparities, including unequal pay, fewer opportunities for career advancement, and challenges in balancing work and family responsibilities.

However, it is important to emphasise that there are numerous successful and respected women in the legal profession in SA, and many law firms and organisations are actively working towards creating more inclusive environments. Women are taking on prominent roles as judges, advocates, attorneys, and legal academics, and contributing significantly to the field.

Organisations such as NADEL and the South African Women Lawyers Association play important roles in advocating for gender equality in the legal profession and addressing issues faced by women in the field. It is crucial to recognise that the experiences of women in the legal profession can vary depending on factors such as location, practice area, seniority, and individual circumstances. While progress has been made, ongoing efforts are necessary to ensure that women are treated equally and provided with fair opportunities in the legal profession.

 

KR: Who are some of the women you look up to in the legal profession and why?

BZ: There are several notable women in the legal profession in South Africa who have made significant contributions. Thuli Madonsela is a prominent South African advocate and former Public Protector. She gained widespread acclaim for her fearless approach to tackling corruption and maladministration during her tenure. Ms Madonsela is known for her integrity, dedication to justice, and commitment to upholding the rule of law.

Dr Navi Pillay is a renowned South African jurist who served as a judge of the International Criminal Court and later as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. She has been a strong advocate for human rights and has played a significant role in promoting justice and equality globally. Pansy Tlakula is a prominent human rights lawyer and former Chairperson of the Electoral Commission of South Africa. She has been actively involved in constitutional and electoral law matters and has made important contributions to the promotion of free and fair elections in SA.

Judge Mabaeng Denise Lenyai is an accomplished lawyer and the first female President of the Law Society of South Africa. She has been a strong advocate for the advancement of women in the legal profession and has worked towards fostering diversity and inclusivity within the profession. These women have demonstrated exceptional leadership, integrity, and a commitment to justice and human rights. They serve as role models not only for women in the legal profession but for all individuals aspiring to make a positive impact through the law.

Justice Dikgang Moseneke served as the Deputy Chief Justice of South Africa from 2005 to 2016. While not a woman, he played a vital role in promoting gender equality in the legal profession. He has been a champion of women’s rights and has actively advocated for gender diversity in the judiciary.

 

KR: What does an equal legal profession look like to you?

BZ: An equal legal profession would strive for equitable representation of all racial and ethnic groups in the legal profession, including the judiciary, law firms, legal academia, and government legal entities. This would involve actively promoting diversity and inclusivity through recruitment, retention, and advancement policies.

Equal access to legal education would be crucial. This would involve addressing financial barriers, providing scholarships or financial aid to students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and promoting outreach programs to encourage students from underrepresented groups to pursue legal studies. Law firms would need to embrace transformation by adopting inclusive hiring practices, providing mentorship and support for aspiring lawyers from underrepresented groups, and actively promoting diversity within their ranks.

Measures should be implemented to reduce bias and discrimination within the legal profession. This includes implementing policies to prevent discriminatory practices in recruitment, promotions, and work assignments. Training programs on unconscious bias and cultural sensitivity could be introduced to educate legal professionals.

Establishing mentorship and sponsorship programs that connect aspiring lawyers from underrepresented groups with experienced professionals can be instrumental in providing guidance, support, and opportunities for career advancement.

Equal access to professional development opportunities, such as continuing legal education programmes, leadership training, and networking events, would be crucial in levelling the playing field and ensuring equal career advancement prospects for all legal professionals.

Promoting gender equality within the legal profession is also essential. This would involve addressing issues such as the gender pay gap, ensuring equitable representation of women in leadership positions, and implementing policies to prevent gender-based discrimination and harassment.

It is important to note that achieving an equal legal profession is an ongoing process that requires commitment, collaboration, and sustained efforts from all stakeholders, including legal professionals, educational institutions, government bodies, and professional organisations.

 

KR: What is your daily motivation?

BZ: My daily motivation is that I know I am a child of God and God’s got me so the world is my playground, and I can go for anything I want.

 

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

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2023 (Aug) DR 24.

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