US Embassy launches programme to improve representation of women in the legal sector

February 1st, 2022

The Embassy of the United States in Pretoria launched a programme to target young female legal professionals with the aim of improving the representation of women in the legal field, an issue that is faced all over the world including South Africa (SA) and the United States (US). The Advancing Women in the Workplace (AWW) project, in partnership with the Vance Centre for International Justice will be a two-year mentorship programme linking 20 seasoned legal professionals with 20 new entrants to the legal sector in both 2022 and 2023.

The event was attended by former Constitutional Court Justice, Yvonne Mokgoro, who in her keynote address, said that female legal practitioners have the responsibility to transform their narrative. She added, therefore, that it should be kept in mind that the programme is indeed a particularly critical cause to advance, considering the challenges contemporary women in the legal profession still face, simply because they are women. ‘Important, however, it is for us to continuously be conscious that there are approaches and methods we adapt to advance the cause must impact and bring real change. We adopt to advance the cause, but the method we advance the cause must impact in the working space of professional women,’ Justice Mokgoro added.

Justice Mokgoro added that we transform not only women’s work experience, but also transform the bigger societal picture. She pointed out that it is important for women to take every opportunity to assert their rights and not conduct themselves as if they are asking for their rights. ‘These rights we must all recognise are inherently integral to the humanity,’ Justice Mokgoro said. She added that there is also an obligation on women professionals themselves to advance the cause of women’s empowerment in the workspace. She pointed out that aversion and collaboration with leading male counterparts in the legal profession, as long as the partnership is sincere and impactful, and the context of the bigger picture is that the aim to collaborate or cooperate with leading men in the legal profession is important.

Justice Mokgoro revealed that before she was appointed to the Constitutional Court, she was mentored by leading male colleagues in the profession, who have a gift for recognising and developing potential. She said working hard alongside these men gave her countless opportunities to scrutinise them on women’s workplace needs, including their challenges, and their capabilities. She added that during the process she took time to settle myths. She added in that approach women can raise each other up. It is, therefore, important for women to know that being the first to rise to certain leadership positions means that you have kicked the door open and shattered the glass ceiling, not only for yourself, but for those who follow.

Justice Mokgoro pointed out that for a project such as this to create an impact, collaboration and cooperation with civil society, including national and international organisations is necessary. She pointed out that in regard to collaboration it is important that it is not only confined to organisations in the legal profession, but also other bodies in other professions, as women in the workspace share similar cultural and socio-economic challenges to a lesser or greater extent. She said women share similar professional challenges, which tend to procure and limit professional women from reaching their full potential, which in turn deprives society from the benefits of their true capabilities.

Vance Centre Africa Programme Manager, Adaobi Egboka presented at the introduction and launch of the AWW project. She spoke about the connection between the Vance Centre and SA, adding that the programme assists young lawyers from SA with the promotion of exclusive legal professionals to support pro bono work throughout the country. She said that the Vance Centre has started the South African Fellow Network and a women’s programme. Based on a survey conducted in 2013, focussing on the diversity and inclusion in the legal profession, Ms Egboka pointed out that the Vance Centre noticed that there was a need for diversity.

Ms Egboka said: ‘We worked with the Law Society of South Africa, Mail and Guardian, and the South African Legal Fellows Network and the school of law. In 2013 in a survey conducted on big law firms in SA, the findings showed that there is still lack of diversity, including among women. We found that, yes, women of colour are hired, but not on top levels. That there are a lot of females in the legal profession, however, when looking at partnership at the top level, there are no women to be found. One thing we also found is that females comprise about 4% of law firms’ legal practitioner, but majority are not at the senior level, majority are white male and that is what the programme is going to focus a lot on, women of colour.’ She added that worldwide women are not recognised. There are barriers that prevent women from progressing in the legal profession and among them is bias, lack of flexible working hours and gender pay. She pointed out that the project has four major objectives, which are:

  • Increasing the number of women of colour, within senior leadership positions, and in two years of the project for there to be at least a 20% increase, and to do this by improving skills direction and other opportunities in the legal market.
  • Men will not be left out but be involved in the project, they will be equipped with not just information but a partnership to work with on the project.
  • Mentorship and leadership, she pointed out that they hope to identify 40 mentees from the nine provinces in SA. Ms Egboka also called on the Department of Justice and law firms to assist in mentoring.
  • The project also aims to equip women of colour on how to transition from junior to mid-level positions and to possibly get the board position, they are going to do this by providing quarterly workshops in the project and not just mentorship.

Ms Egboka shared the key activities that they aim to achieve with the project, namely:

  • Research will be conducted on the status and issues around gender diversity and inclusions at law firms. She added that they are looking for partners and opened an invitation to organisations that want to work with the centre on the survey.
  • They are going to identify and approach mentors, specifically people who are senior in the legal profession, but also people who have the passion and are willing to work with the centre.
  • There will be a pair-to-pair exchange on mentors and mentees, learning from the Latin America Programme, so that mentors from SA can also teach Latin America something unique.
  • There will be quarterly training, where at the beginning mentees will fill in the forms, highlighting the areas in which they are lacking.

Ms Egboka said that once the survey is conducted the centre will release the report so that law firms can see the gaps and recommendations the centre has made and hope that law firms will follow through with the recommendations. A video of the mentorship experience will be released and lastly a conference will be held where mentees will be recognised.

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