Nigerian lawyer Ubongabasi Obot recalls how after months of rejections from top law firms in her country, she finally got the call she was waiting for.
“Hello is this Ubongabasi,” the law firm recruiter asked.
“Yes”, she replied.
“Oh, I thought you were a man,” he said, a reference to her rather masculine name.
He then asked about her marital status, when she replied that she was married, he simply said: “I’m sorry. We cannot give you the job.”
There was no other explanation.
“I then realised that I was being denied a job by reason of being female and married. In their opinion, I could not be a good lawyer,” she said, in an article published by the Institute for African Women in Law earlier this year.
Whether or not the law is still very much a “man’s world” is open to interpretation and perceptions seem to depend on the eye of the beholder.
Dr Jeanne-Mari Retief, a human rights lawyer who has worked in Africa, says different women have had different experiences.
“I know of strong female attorneys who are making a success of it...and others struggling with balancing family and career. Then there are others confronted with cultural norms, especially in rural courts, where their skills are viewed as less,” she said.
But even male attorneys concede there has not been enough done to encourage women into private practice as attorneys and advocates.
Durban-based labour lawyer Dunstan Farrell, whose staff are mainly women, says: “The legal profession (in South Africa) is still very much a “white boys’ club”.
“There is most definitely a glass ceiling with regard to the promotion of women, their appointment as partners and management of firms. Men are overprotective of their turf. But women, more often than not, have better university results, interview better and are more ambitious and driven.”
Attorney Charmaine Schwenn, who recently opened a “women only” practice, agrees.
“It is very much a man’s world….particularly in the arena of networking and securing clients.
“The structure of law firms do not generally allow for a woman to rise in her career if one takes into account issues such as maternity leave. There is also still a problem with equal work and equal pay.”
She said successful women attorneys were often labelled “aggressive” and as “ball breakers”.
“If a male attorney fights hard for his client he is admired. Similar actions from a woman attorney have a negative connotation.”
The struggle, says Gugu Buthelezi, founding director of Buthelezi, Mtshali Mzulwini Attorneys, lies in the fact that the law profession has not transformed to accommodate women in different stages of their lives, especially when they become mothers.
“The law profession promotes rigid working hours. There is a culture that the attorney must work in the office from morning to midnight to reach targets and show commitment. I have overcome this by taking advantage of technology which allows me to work from anywhere….
“The workplace needs to develop flexible working environments to accommodate women,” Buthelezi said.
But it’s not all doom and gloom.
And in the words of the Annie Lennox song it seems that: “Sisters are doin’ it for themselves”.
“The reality is that the responsibility to improve workplace environments rests on women in the industry,” said Schwenn.
“And it’s also important for women to understand what they are getting into….to be exceptional at what they do. Ensure that your knowledge and skills are brilliant and join organisations that will uplift you. You cannot rely on existing structures to pave your way.”
Dr Retief, who is also the founder of Calibrics which develops innovate legal strategies said: “No-one, man or woman, achieves success overnight.
“But I think we need to be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that there are certainly unique challenges women face, whether it be the decision to start a family or difficulties arising from cultural expectations.
“But this should not be something that drags us down. We need to set goals for ourselves, nurture our careers, work on professional development and commit to what works for us.
“A tip for all women in the workplace...you cannot get ahead by merely waiting for change. You have to motivate yourself every day. Tap into that and don’t let go.”
On a practical note for balancing work and family life she recommends a three point system:
Be organised and make sure office, personal life, work and personal spaces are well defined.
Communicate effectively by having a shared family and work calendar and be open and vocal to clients, colleagues and family members about what you are able to commit to within a certain time period.
And manage your time well so you can avoid situations where you are juggling and trying to do too many things at once.
Obot said she had recently attended a book launch at the International Institute of Social Studies in The Hague where she brushed shoulders with some “powerful” women judges.
It was inspirational, she said.
One told her to “become an expert in your field, work hard and you will shine”.
“There are many women who are extremely successful….I had dreamed of a life in the courts, but my reality was different. I now know that every young girl or woman can make it if they really put their minds to it.
“We will work hard and we will see each other at the top!”
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