Women still fighting an uphill battle for representation in legal profession

Gender diversity in the legal profession remains a challenge and South Africa lags behind the rest of the world as its structure does not reflect the diversity of South African society. The gap is particularly large for black women, who are trying their best to get a foot in the door of the country’s legal sector.

A study from the Centre for Applied Legal Studies at Wits University entitled ‘Transformation of the legal profession’ in 2014 officially opened the eyes of legal professionals to the harsh and unfortunate disparity between gender and race among the country’s lawyers.

Although this was evident eight years ago, Thabile Fuhrmann, director in the dispute resolution practice and joint head of the government and state-owned entities sector at commercial law firm Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr (CDH), says the profession still lacks a great deal of progression, but she is at least positive that we are moving forward.

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Vast improvement in gender diversity, but it requires scrutiny

She says large law firms have seen a vast improvement in representation, but this transformation still requires careful scrutiny.

“We can fill our corridors with candidate attorneys and make sure we have more women and even black women than anyone else. That is fine. But unless they are able to make it to the top and break through that glass ceiling, what is the point?”

Fuhrmann points to South Africa’s recent quest for a new Chief Justice with many people eagerly awaiting the appointment of a woman to this position with a prime candidate the newly appointed Deputy Chief Justice Mandisa Maya as a case in point.

Sadly, that never happened.

“Gender still makes people uncomfortable, especially at the top. The fact that Judge President Mandisa Maya had to answer any questions surrounding her gender while her male counterparts could display their intellectual prowess around legal questions is exactly the problem. The bottom is transforming fast, but the top is reluctant to follow suit.”

Fuhrmann says the mere fact that Maya had to be asked if the country is ready for a female Chief Justice is proof enough that leadership in this country is not ready to transform. “Our lack of momentum stems from the top. Of course, we are ready for a female chief justice. However, as women, we are also ready to stop defining our success around our gender.”

Although she has recognised the need for transformation at the top, it has not stopped Fuhrmann from making a difference at the bottom. Fuhrmann has actively driven transformation initiatives at CDH to inspire black female graduates to choose a firm like CDH instead of assuming this is a path only reserved for males.

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Law Society demographics

According to the latest demographics statistics from The Law Society of South Africa, white males make up 33% of attorneys in South Africa.

In fact, 56% of all attorneys in the country are white. “A quarter of the population are black females, yet we only make up 17% of attorneys in the country. It is abundantly clear that we are a long way from a true representation of our population.”

Fuhrmann has always believed that it is the duty of all black female lawyers to actively advocate for the transformation they want to see in the industry.

“We all need to do our utmost to empower other black and female lawyers, regardless of where they come from or which firm they work for. I engage with so many inspiring young women every day who I believe have the power and passion to shape the sector and in doing so, build the nation.”

Fuhrmann believes passing down work to subordinates, particularly young black and female lawyers, will provide significant empowerment for their development and gender diversity. “We need to create a career growth path for them now, so that they can do the same for other young black women looking to make it in law tomorrow.”

Fuhrmann says the evidence is clear that gender diversity transformation is happening from the bottom up. Out of the 6 669 registered candidate attorneys in South Africa, 63% are black and 35% are black females.

“Of course, change at the top still needs to happen. We cannot deny that black female representation in the upper echelons of the legal profession is sorely lacking, but that simply means we need to work harder at transforming.”