Changing the gender landscape in the legal profession
On the 25 July 2017, a host of women lawyers, researchers, students and other interested individuals gathered to discuss gender transformation in the public interest litigation sector. Facilitated by Charlene May from the Legal Resources Centre the panel included Seehaam Samaai of the Women’s Legal Centre (WLC), Ofentse Motlhasedi from the Black Workers Forum, Mimi Memka from the Women Task Team at the Law Society of South Africa, Keketso Maema from the Commission for Gender Equality, Nolukhanyiso Gcilitshana of the South African Women Lawyers Association and Alison Tilley from Judges Matter.
The main focus centred on the problems of enforcing achievable objectives to enhance the position of women in the profession and enabling this to filter into the wider society. A common theme from the panellists echoed the need for law societies and bar councils to play an important role, aside from public interaction and women led coalitions.
The question remains, do we talk ourselves in circles or do we make simple, vital changes to contribute to changing the gender landscape in the legal profession? And what is the responsibility of the legal profession in helping combat gender bias?
Yes, women do face many obstacles in the legal profession – after law school particularly, including; advocates finding mentoring; unfriendly environments for women; potentially taking time off for a family or a male partner’s advance; sexual harassment in a male dominated sphere; working harder to prove your competence; and the few number of black female silks. But should we not breathe new life into our young female intellects and make some simple, structural changes rather than scaring them away with statistics and criticism?
“Focus on going forward and invigorate young female lawyers.” – Alison Tilley
One of the ways of tackling this within the judicial sphere is to consider how female professionals become acting judges in the South African system. It was identified that the simplest change to enforce that will contribute to gender transformation in the judiciary, would be to develop a transparent policy about how to become an acting judge. While a panelist noted that female leadership does not eradicate gender discrimination, it will encourage female unity and substantive progression in gender equality in the field.
“The public interest sector cannot drop the ball on gender transformation – if it does not meet that standard we cannot expect the government to meet it.”
Section 175 (2) of the Constitution empowers the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development to appoint acting judges after consulting the senior judge of the court. If female attorneys do not appear regularly before High Courts and gain the attention of the Judge Presidents, how then are they to be considered for acting appointments?
Being female in the legal profession in South Africa is, as one panelist commented, “perceived as a disability”. Of course this gender obstacle is faced by many globally, but in South Africa we have a particularly multifaceted dimension when it comes to gender bias and perception on and around the bench. For example, is it true that we have focused so hard on racial transformation that it has been at the expense of gender equality?
“A dangerous norm of sacrificing gender culture to the race alter.” – Ofentse Motlhasedi
It is clear that debate and active participation is needed, especially from academic bodies and lobbyists. The Commission for Gender and Equality noted the existence of patriarchal structures and institutionalized structures and despite the evidence of some gender related legislation, compliance and enforcement remains a challenge. The Women’s Legal Centre is focused on quantitative data research to determine how these policies have impacted on females and to promote substantive equality.
With so much talk, the profession has seen little movement in this area. It is time for a pro-active drafting of policy to enforce some positive, material changes for our future judiciary.
[UPDATE: 28 November 2017] In response to our article, Phumzile Sokhela, a previous legal researcher at the Supreme Court of Appeal who is currently reading for her Masters in International and Comparative Law at Trinity College, Dublin, wrote a detailed comment; click here to read it in full.