Societal perception of women leadership is one of the barriers to women leadership

February 22nd, 2023

From left: The President of the Law Society of South Africa, Mabaeng Denise Lenyai with the co-founder of the Women in Law Awards, Rehana Khan Parker ; the Deputy Chief Justice of South Africa, Mandisa Maya; Executive Director of the Institute for African Women in Law, Associate Professor Jarpa Dawuni; and member of the Legal Practice Council, Kathleen Matolo-Dlepu at the launch of the Women in Law and Leadership reports.

The Institute for African Women in Law (IAWL) launched three reports on Women in Law and Leadership. The launch of the reports was held at the Constitutional Court of South Africa (SA) on 24 January 2023. The reports summarised the findings of research that was conducted regarding women in law and leadership in SA, Kenya, Nigeria, and Senegal. The reports covered three areas, namely the Bar, the Bench, and the legal academy. It furthermore focused on three levels of intersecting challenges, barriers, and points of attrition, namely –

  • institutional factors, which speaks to norms, practices, and rules;
  • structural factors, which speaks to sociocultural norms, practices, stereotypes; and
  • individual factors, which speaks to choices, opportunities, agency, and work-life balance.

The President of the Law Society of South Africa, Mabaeng Denise Lenyai, opened the ceremony of the launch of the Women in Law and Leadership reports that was held at the Constitutional Court of South Africa on 24 January 2023.

Speaking at the launch, the President of the Law Society of South Africa (LSSA), Mabaeng Denise Lenyai, affirmed the LSSA’s support for the IAWL. She added that when the LSSA speaks about transformation, it is not only about transformation in terms of race, but also gender. She said that when the LSSA speaks about the importance of having female legal practitioners in the leadership positions, it is not for the sake of paying lip service or saving face so that the organisation is seen as being politically correct. ‘This is evidently seen by the current leadership of the LSSA, which is headed by an all-female leadership of three very capable women,’ Ms Lenyai added.

Ms Lenyai pointed out that the LSSA stands in support of organisations, such as the IAWL in its initiatives to hold to account the leadership in the South African Bar, Bench, and the legal academy to understand women’s representation in law and leadership. She added that many strides have been made in the transformation of the attorney’s profession, but a whole lot more must be done to level the playing field for female legal practitioners. She said that female legal practitioners needed to work together to progress in the legal profession.

Ms Lenyai said it is important to note that an environment needs to be created for women legal practitioners to thrive and support one another. To impart knowledge to upcoming female legal practitioners and to ensure that future women leaders and lawmakers are at a standard that is deserving of SA. Ms Lenyai told attendees that in other parts of the world, when one says they are from SA, people take you very seriously. She added that is about time South Africans take themselves seriously. She encouraged attendees to be a part of the solution.

Executive Director of the Institute for African Women in Law, Associate Professor Jarpa Dawuni spoke about the research done on women in law and leadership.

While speaking at the launch, Executive Director of the IAWL, Associate Professor Jarpa Dawuni said she started the IAWL because of the frustration she had with regards to not being able to find consistent research about women in law in Africa. She said she wanted information about women in law in Ghana, Senegal and SA, however, each time she would try find women lawyers in these countries she could not find what she was looking for.

Dr Dawuni pointed out that her lack of knowledge and frustration led her to find the solution to the problem. She added that the institution was born out of a passion to generate rich and informed search about African women in law, most importantly through their voices and their lived experience. She pointed out that the findings of the research among others, will be used to provide training and mentor the next generation of women legal practitioners.

Legal practitioner and member of the Legal Practice Council, Kathleen Matolo-Dlepu, was tasked with giving an overview of the reports. She said that the reports by the IAWL was long overdue. She pointed out that in recent years there have been many conversations around representation in various sectors, and the legal sector is no exception. She added that representation in the legal sector matters not just to women in the profession, but women in the country and on the continent. ‘It is inconceivable that any legal system would operate without taking into consideration the role that women play in the society it governs,’ she said.

Member of the Legal Practice Council, Kathleen Matolo-Dlepu gave a summary of the Women in Law and Leadership reports at the launch.

Ms Matolo-Dlepu added that the research that was conducted to produce the reports was a labour of passion from all those involved. ‘I commend the IAWL and researchers for their work and their commitment to women empowerment. You would think that we know enough about our own challenges by now, but a different picture begins to emerge when there is a collective effort to document and discuss these challenges,’ Ms Matolo-Dlepu said. She said that there have been incessant discussions about transformation, empowerment, and diversity in the legal profession and its leadership. She pointed out that there have been meetings, round tables, workshops, and every manner of platform for us to raise our grievances.

Ms Matolo-Dlepu pointed out that the report analysed entry, retention, and promotion in the profession. Looking at the Bar in SA, where there is a split Bar unlike other countries, Ms Matolo-Dlepu noted some of the barriers to entry were –

  • unfair and unconscious bias towards women and their skills;
  • the lack of mentorship and organisational support;
  • the ‘boys club’ mentality of the profession;
  • legal bodies and organisation actively advocating for women leadership in their structures;
  • transparent and inclusive criterion for appointment and promotion;
  • sexual harassment and others gender related policies;
  • mentorship networks; and
  • providing support for staff with family responsibilities.

Ms Matolo-Dlepu said the researchers of the reports did a phenomenal job. She pointed out that more than anything, the reports have shown that the African countries in which the study was conducted have a lot in common and not just in challenges but also in their successes and in the goal to drive gender parity. ‘Let us put to bed the ridiculous belief that women do not get along and move forward together to change this profession for generations to come,’ Ms Matolo-Dlepu added.

The Deputy Chief Justice of South Africa, Mandisa Maya, gave a keynote address at the launch of the Women in Law and Leadership.

The Deputy Chief Justice of SA, Mandisa Maya was the keynote speaker at the launch and commended the IAWL for the exceptional work they do in advancing the interest of women and promoting gender diversity in the legal profession, the legal academia, and the judiciary. She added that women’s representation in all legal spheres has been progressive over the years but slow. She said that the reports by the IAWL crucially identifies barriers that have hindered progression of women in leadership over the ages, not just in recent times. ‘I have no doubt that I speak for all the women here, when I say I, myself, have encountered those barriers on the way to where I am today,’ Deputy Chief Justice Maya said.

Deputy Chief Justice Maya added that all women in their workspace and even at home face them. She said, although, obstacles playout differently for different women, most are common for all women. She pointed out that despite numerous existing policies created by the state and other stakeholders on gender bias, the discrimination of women in the legal profession continues to thrive. Deputy Chief Justice Maya said that there are legal systems and principals in the judiciary, which sit at the top tier of the field as the ultimate enforcer and protector of the legal rights, which plays a pivotal role in the promotion and implementation of the constitutional imperatives that seek to develop a transformed society.

Deputy Chief Justice Maya added that the judiciary plays a pivotal role in facilitating the re-imagining of a still very patriarchal world. She said it is an institution capable of breaking innovation, one that can balance genders of those intentions and interest. She pointed out that gender equality in the legal profession is fundamental to achieving the legitimacy that attracts the confidence of the community it serves. She added that diversity in the judiciary is not only valuable in the legal fraternity. She said it creates public decision making that is cognisant of and empathetic to the different officers, experiences and needs of many individuals representing various socio-economic backgrounds and women’s unique insights and perspective on struggles affecting them daily.

Deputy Chief Justice Maya added the prejudice of women are not only in professional sphere. She added that in communities when a girl child is born, while it is a joyful event, it is not afforded the same degree of importance as that of a baby boy. She pointed out that multitudes of girls across the world to date either get denied access to adequate education or have been subjected to learning conditions that limit their growth and chances to compete at equal levels as their male counterparts. Deputy Chief Justice Maya said from various stages of life women are conceived as incompetent to men.

Executive Director of the Institute for African Women in Law, Associate Professor Jarpa Dawuni with the Deputy Chief Justice of South Africa, Mandisa Maya, unveiling the report of Women in Law and Leadership at the Constitutional Court of South Africa on 24 January 2023.

Deputy Chief Justice Maya said that the IAWL identifies one of the key obstacles that restrict women in ascending in the legal profession and across the professional spectrum as the work life balancing challenge. She added that young girls are expected to juggle their schoolwork and household chores, while in the same manner grown women find themselves having to simultaneously fulfil careers and family lives. She shared a story of how she once received missed calls from her son while she was about to step into court for an important appeal case with very senior male colleagues. She innocently took the call thinking it was something important, only to find out that there was no yogurt in the fridge, while the father was there at home with the son. She pointed out this was because she is the one responsible for getting groceries at home. She said that she has no doubt that very few of her male colleagues have such experiences.

In the evening of the report launch, the Journal of the South African Chapter of the International Association of Women Judges was launched.

Deputy Chief Justice Maya, speaking at the launch of the journal said she was filled with excitement about the launching of the journal as it has been a long time coming. She added that the launch of the event was not just an ordinary unveiling. She said the seed was planted for the journal during a telephonic conversation that she had with Director General of the Department of Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities, legal practitioner Joyce Maluleke about the South African Chapter of the International Association of Women Judges’ (SAC-IAWJ) programmes, impact, hope and aspiration for what it can achieve to advance women in the legal field, especially judicial officers. She pointed out that they were particularly concerned about women’s judgments writing in the courts and started talking about exploring ways of helping both women judges and magistrates on judgment writing skills and encouraging them to write academics articles. She said that during the conversation the idea of having a journal was born, which made them both excited.

Deputy Chief Justice Maya said they met with Juta and started exploring aspects of implementing the idea, and that they realised that it had potential. She added that the key overall objective of SAC-IAWJ is the attainment of gender equality and the advancement of women and girls in the legal field and everywhere else. ‘As we all know women generally face many obstacles and have very limited opportunities to enhance their knowledge and skills in the work spaces, including in the judiciary.’ She added that there are few platforms that allow women to network, especially women in the judiciary, network, access and share knowledge from various subject and related issues. She pointed out that women work much harder than their male counterparts to achieve the same results in the same workspace. Deputy Chief Justice Maya said the journal is meant to provide a training ground and a safe space for women to own their writing skills without judgement and being unfairly measured against others, so that they may write quality legal opinions and articles on all legal issues, and societal issues, opinions and articles that are well articulated in a capable publication.

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