Women’s role in the Western legal system

women boardroom
29 Aug 2017

The Western legal system is lopsided in that it prioritizes logic over intuition, the left brain over the right brain, over connection and masculine approaches over feminine ones. For the sake of our clients, of society and of humanity, we need to move to an integrated approach where we value logic AND intuition, the left brain AND the right brain, connection AND confrontation, masculine AND feminine approaches. Along with many others, I believe that women have a major role to play in facilitating the emergence of a healthier legal system.

The statistics of the number of women in senior positions in law, in the private sector and the public, in the attorneys profession and the advocates’, as well as throughout the judicial system, are still quite dismal. It is the individual stories that give hope. There are women experiencing legal practice today in ways that were unthinkable twenty years ago.

WOLELA, Women Leading in Law, is a network for women lawyers, helping them navigate successful careers in law. WOLELA is not a forum for men-bashing or a space in which women can gather to bemoan their fate. Rather, it is a platform aimed at deepening the understanding of why women face distinct, often insurmountable hurdles when it comes to making it to the top of their profession. We believe that most of these hurdles are not created by men, or not knowingly anyhow. The most obvious reason given for the scarcity of women in the higher echelons is that the exact time women need to be leaning into their careers, is also the time they need to be having children, if they want them. But this is not the whole story.

A US law partner puts in succinctly: “Firms want women to stay. Men at the firms want women to stay, and women want to stay. So why aren’t they?”

Anecdotal evidence in South Africa suggests this holds true for us too. It’s not that women are all quitting law to start families, it’s that most law firms are still designed and run as they were 200 years ago, as institutions run by men for male employees. Although care has been taken to remove obvious barriers to women entering these workplaces, we are still sitting with huge hurdles in the form of what has become referred to as second generation gender bias.

Researchers at the Center for Gender in Organizations (CGO), explain that second generation gender biases are “work cultures and practices that appear neutral and natural on their face,” yet they reflect masculine values and life situations of men who have been dominant in the development of traditional work settings. This is also described as “subtle and often invisible barriers for women that arise from cultural assumptions and organizational structures, practices, and patterns of interaction that inadvertently benefit men while putting women at a disadvantage.”

If women are facing second generation gender bias, there’s huge evidence to suggest black women are facing second generation gender and racial bias

There is a lot to discuss, a lot to look at and a need to celebrate the women who are finding new ways for women to lead in law.

On 15 September in Cape Town and 6 October in Johannesburg, WOLELA is holding its Annual Conference where we gather to talk about the triumphs and the tragedies, the breakthroughs and obstacles faced by women lawyers in South Africa today.

We want to celebrate women who are charting new territory and inspire those who are exhausted, as law is so often an all-consuming career, to find a new way forward. Some of it’s political, but mostly it’s personal.

Panels are on:

1. She Disrupts: We recognize the women change makers, rule breakers and disruptors who are leading innovation in the legal profession.

2. Embodying Leadership Identity: Leadership can’t just be learned in a leadership course. In this panel we discuss the fragile process of coming to see oneself as a leader.

3. Lawyer Unplugged: Are your holidays about physically leaving the office while maintaining productivity? What if you actually unplugged, leaving the office both physically and electronically? Facilitated by Dr Ela Manga (JHB) and Marisa Lloyd (CPT) Executive Energy Coach at Deloittes

And we will close the day with a COURAGEOUS CONVERSATION on Overcoming second Generation Gender Bias: Learn to recognize the subtle and pervasive effects of second generation gender bias to avoid victimization. It’s not YOU it’s a profession designed by men for men!

We are excited to announce that Leslie Richards-Yellen, the immediate past President of the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL) in the United States will be delivering the keynote address at Finding New Ways for Women to Lead in Law, in Johannesburg. Leslie is an incredible leader in law firm diversity strategy, with a wealth of knowledge in how to promote a culture where people bring their whole-self to the office, have the tools to maximize their strengths, and explore all of their possibilities for achievement.

And breaking news – we will have our new Constitutional Court Justice Leona Theron joining us too! (If the Office of the Chief Justice allows it).

Please come and join us. Yes, it means a day out the office but it is the slavery of lawyers to their desks and the billable hour that often prevents us from reaching our full potential. You will probably not remember what you did that day in the office, but you will remember attending #FNW4Women. Come and connect with your tribe and find new ways to lead.

CPT on the 15 September 2017 at the Vineyard Hotel, Colinton Road, Newlands. From 8am – 5pm followed by cocktails. Click here for more details.

JHB on the 6 October 2017 at Room 5, Rivonia Village Shopping Center, Cnr Rivonia Boulevard and Mutual Road, Sandton. 8am – 5pm followed by cocktails. Click here for more details.

Cape Town Tickets available here.

Johannesburg Tickets available here.

(This article is provided for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. For more information on the topic, please contact the author/s or the relevant provider.)

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