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Cape Town - Women lawyers are subjected to “indirect gender discrimination” and are seen more as “backroom contract drafters” than litigators, the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) has heard.
The commission interviewed four female candidates for a vacancy on the Western Cape Bench on Tuesday.
The commission recommended Johannesburg attorney Nolwazi Boqwana for appointment over the other candidates, advocates Roseline Nyman and Diane Davis and attorney Kate Savage.
In a session where the issue of women in the legal profession took centre stage, all of them believed briefing patterns were skewed and as a result, women did not get the same quality of work as men.
Nyman said that in her experience as an advocate, there existed the perception that “if you are black then you are not as intelligent as a white person”.
Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng questioned all four interviewees on the scarce pool from which the JSC could draw women judges, saying that the perception was being bandied about that “somehow the chief justice and the commission do not want, or are not committed, to having women appointed to the higher courts”.
Savage told the JSC that there was a tendency to give all the good work to men because they were seen more traditionally in the role of litigators.
Women, however, were very much seen as “backroom contract drafters”.
Many women entered the profession as attorneys, said Savage, but not that many rose to the higher echelons of the legal fraternity, such as senior and judicial positions.
When asked about her infrequent court appearances, Davis said she did not often appear in court because she preferred to do the kind of cases she wanted to do, rather than turning to family and matrimonial work, which was “often the way that women at the Cape Bar survive”.
“There is inequality and women very often don’t get the experience and exposure to the big briefs that make people rise,” she told the commission.
Nyman also bemoaned briefing patterns, saying that women should not be restricted to family law just because they were mothers. This, she believed, amounted to “indirect gender discrimination”.
Nyman said the advocates’ profession was male-dominated and it was an “uphill battle” for women to convince attorneys that they, as female advocates, could also handle other types of law, such as commercial law.
She also touched on the failure to brief black advocates, saying that banks, for example, consistently did not brief black advocates. “We don’t have any control over that. If you go to motion court on any given day, you will find predominantly white advocates.”
“One of the problems in relation to briefing patterns is the question of... perception that black people are inferior.
“If you studied at UWC or at a former black university then your degree is regarded as being inferior,” she said. “There’s this perception that if you are black then you’re not as intelligent as a white person.”
Boqwana also felt that women did not get briefed as much as men.
While she had heard that the majority of university law students were women, they “disappeared” after they graduated.
“There’s still a perception out there that women are not capable enough and, therefore, not trusted enough to do the work,” said Boqwana.
Although she was working with a team that empowered women by giving them quality work, she said that generally, she did not believe women got good work.
The team believed briefing patterns needed to change, that women needed to play an active role and that the talent of young women lawyers needed to be nurtured at an earlier stage of their training and careers.