The advancement of female legal practitioners

August 1st, 2022
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The year is 2022, are we any closer to attaining the goal of ensuring that female legal practitioners receive the same opportunities as their male colleagues? The January 2022 statistics of the legal practitioners’ profession show that female legal practitioners make up 43% of the legal practitioners’ profession. Although the percentage of female legal practitioners has increased compared to pre-1994 numbers, female legal practitioners still do not have the same access to opportunities as their male counterparts.

Letty Cottin Pogrebin noted that ‘when men are oppressed, it’s a tragedy. When women are oppressed, it’s tradition’. One way to ensure that this ‘tradition’ is curbed is to deal with the misconceived stereotype that suggests that female  legal practitioners are less capable of doing their job. When the opportunity arises, more female legal practitioners are availing themselves for positions of influence in the profession. It is these instances that will correct the false notion that female legal practitioners cannot do their job as well as their male counterparts. What female legal practitioners need to guard against is the ‘imposter syndrome’, where they do not avail themselves for positions of influence because they believe they are not good enough to be in the profession.

A 2019 survey conducted by the International Bar Association (IBA) showed that South Africa has the worst rates of bullying and harassment within the industry. The IBA survey revealed that approximately 75% of the female respondents have been bullied in the workplace. In the survey, 43% of the female legal practitioners stated that they have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace (see ‘Us Too? Bullying and Sexual Harassment in the Legal Profession’ (www.ibanet.org, accessed 25-7-2022)). These are some reasons why female legal practitioners do not feel welcomed in the profession and therefore do not want to stay in the profession.

According to Dr Tamlynne Meyer’s PhD thesis, women lawyers, particularly black women, are still underrepresented in the legal profession and struggle to advance to senior positions (Dr Tamlynne Meyer ‘Reaching for partnership: An intersectional study of occupational closure among women attorneys in South Africa’ (PhD thesis, Stellenbosch University, 2021). Dr Meyer examined how and why marginalisation of female legal practitioners, particularly black female legal practitioners, persists despite the elimination of formal barriers and the adoption of laws and policies aimed at transforming the industry. In this sense, she posed two crucial questions: How far has the industry been feminised, and what barriers do women face in advancing their careers?

Dr Meyer gathered the quantitative data for her dissertation study using statistics from the Law Society of South Africa’s LEAD database in order to perform a descriptive and forecasting analysis using the factors of gender and race. She spoke with female legal practitioners to better understand the complexities of the issues that eventually obstruct their career prospects and how they come to feel alone and marginalised in the workplace.

The existence of women in the field, according to Dr Meyer, does not transfer into their having a voice to actively promote any significant change. This is due to a culture that silences women’s voices in the field as well as the fact that they do not hold positions of responsibility that would allow them to have a contributing voice. Dr Meyer argues that real change in the legal profession must go beyond merely adhering to regulations and numerical goals. Dr Meyer contends that a revolutionary and inclusive agenda for women in the legal profession requires more creativity than the adoption of rules, regulations, and quantitative goals.

Dr Meyer states: ‘To facilitate any meaningful change in the profession, we need to understand and interrogate how these are produced, maintained and reproduced. We will have to engage with subjective experiences of female lawyers, gender, racial and class regimes, how they interact with professional cultures and practices, and the societal perceptions and expectations placed on different groups. We also need to engage innovatively and address the perceptions and attitudes of legal practitioners, management, clients and women themselves, as they are central in fostering the transformation project of the profession.’

Strides have been made to ensure that female legal practitioners are represented in the profession and advance in the profession, however, more progress is needed. This will entail having a complete culture change in the profession that targets misconceptions that negatively impact on the advancement of women in the profession.

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2022 (August) DR 3.

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