Women in Law Feature : Introduction August 2017

By Myrle Vanderstraeten, Published in Women in law

The challenges for women in law are easy to see, the solutions less so.

without prejudice sub-editor Gail Schimmel and I disagreed on some issues that came up. She suggested that it was either because of one or both points she made – I am not a practising lawyer and it could be a generational thing that women, "had it really drummed into you that women mustn't complain – because that is an unpleasant, female trait...". On the first point she may well be right, on the second, a definitive no. So I am belatedly grateful for my upbringing which included, being expected to both have and express an opinion and not to consider being a female as a drawback. This appears to be different from that of many women born in various decades including those who have only just graduated.

So how to write an introduction? With a couple of observations from the outside looking in, and comments from South African female attorneys.

Salary is without doubt, and quite rightly, a bête noire but is not isolated to the legal profession. There appears to be an approximate 20% difference between salaries for male and female attorneys in the UK, the US and South Africa. That this disparity exists in the 21st century is outrageous. While it may sometimes be a consequence of a more flexible working agreement, more often than not it is exactly what it is.

Are there glass ceilings – certainly; do some men, and therefore firms consider women less well suited to leadership positions-undoubtedly; are there jobs to which women are seen as ideally suited by some – unfortunately; do men crack sexist jokes – it cannot be denied.

Again, in In my view, discrimination often starts at home and follows us through to the office. There is a very strong need for attitudes to change in the home. There are female lawyers out there who strive for equality but allow their sons to sit in front of the TV while their daughters are expected to help with the dinner.

Two successful, respected and well-liked female attorneys gave their views:

One said, "I think the law firm environment is relentlessly competitive and by its nature, rather unsupportive. This means law firms are particularly miserable places for women with children who are expected to compete with their male contemporaries not only on billable client work but on all sorts of other things (for example drinks with clients after work; team building weekends away; time consuming mentoring of junior staff) despite having little people at home to deal with. Very few women lawyers have a partner at home full time, lots of male lawyers still do. I think most big firms try hard, but when it comes to actually paying women the same and promoting them in the same way as men for two to five years while they have a small baby or two, they don't really succeed. Recent economic conditions and increased competition in the SA market have really made life tough for the local law firms, and this has made it even harder for them to afford 'luxuries' like women who want to work part or flexitime. However, women who are willing – and able – to act just like men (read workaholic, blessed-with-a-wife-at-home men) are certainly respected and rewarded in the legal profession in SA and I don't think there is inherent prejudice in hiring and remuneration."

Another said, "I have no doubt that women are discriminated against in both big and small ways and I cannot deny that I have experienced those moments too. It is difficult to strike a balance because one doesn't want to wear discrimination as a badge although I have found women who find some comfort in the status of 'victim'. I do not wish in any way to diminish the pain some women feel. I believe the focus on 'isms' of all kinds holds us back as a society. At the moment, global society (not just law) seems to enjoy and focus on what divides us rather than what brings us together. Increasingly we are becoming a polarised society. With our history, this is quite a thing in South Africa."

Three of without prejudice's sponsor firms have women at the helm. May-Elaine Thomson took on the role of CEO of Hogan Lovells (South Africa) in 2012. I asked her what gave her, as a woman and a non-lawyer, belief in her ability to hold the position. She credits the leadership of the firm and several "phenomenal" mentors during her career, who gave her the confidence to strive for excellence. She says she cannot stress strongly enough the value of mentorship.

Sally Hutton became Managing Partner of Webber Wentzel in 2015. She kindly agreed to being "profiled" in this feature and her views can be read on p2.

Baitseng Rangata, MD of Maponya comments on some of the stumbling blocks for female lawyers: clients not having confidence in a female attorney's ability and consequently not being briefed, and being compared with a male counterpart – practising as a lawyer is widely associated with being a male professional. Baitseng added that the motivating factor in her success is her own strength – she is driven to succeed and to be viewed as a professional rather than as a woman professional, this makes her strive to outperform. She says, "There are, in fact a few men who believe in the competency of an individual rather than the gender of that individual – they give me hope that one day we will be able to get beyond the notion of male competency." And last but definitely not least, "My passion for law and justice."

Can women have it all, in fact can anyone have it all? The week before without prejudice went to print I was in conversation with a female attorney. One of her main aims is to see women fairly represented and fairly remunerated. During our conversation she commented that she needs an assistant, someone really competent, who is a go-getter and can work effectively on their own but, "I can't have anyone with small children because that is my challenge." Then she said – "How hypocritical is that". And yes, it could be classified as such but what it is, in fact, is reality.