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Study shows that women attorneys still experience inequality in SA

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Published Apr 19, 2022


Although women have made great strides in the legal profession in South Africa and their numbers have steadily increased, they still find it difficult to occupy senior positions or to become partners in law firms.

This is according to Dr Tamlynne Meyer, who recently obtained her doctorate in Sociology at Stellenbosch University.

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Meyer looked at how and why women attorneys, particularly black female attorneys, continued to be marginalised, despite the removal of formal barriers and the enactment of legislation and policies to spearhead transformation in the profession.

In this regard, she asked two important questions: to what extent has the profession been feminised; and what factors impeded women’s career prospects?

“Because women are the subject of South Africa’s transformation project, my study considers the materiality of their everyday lives as they encounter and experience being an attorney in a historically white male-dominated middle-class profession.

“Overall, the study demonstrates the challenges confronting women attorneys and the ways in which they experience marginalisation and inequality,” said Meyer.

As part of her doctoral research, Meyer collected the quantitative data using statistics from the Law Society’s LEAD database to conduct a descriptive and forecasting analysis using the variables of gender and race.

She interviewed female lawyers to examine the complexity of the factors that ultimately impede their career prospects and how they come to experience closure and marginalisation within the profession.

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According to Meyer, her study sheds light on the gendered organisational, social, and cultural factors that impact the experiences of women attorneys, thereby enabling social closure and giving rise to the white male-dominant profession.

She says social closure refers to the way in which social groups enact boundaries and exert power and influence so that the resources, opportunities, and privileges are only available to a select few.

This is usually manifested through inequality, marginalisation, exclusion and elitism taken for granted in invisible, informal, complex, hidden and nuanced ways.

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“It often manifests itself through the culture that the legal profession values and respects – that of being masculinised and white middle class.

“Hence all the privileges, social, cultural and economic capital of the white middle class is valued and respected.

“And those who cannot or do not conform to this idealised culture become excluded in several ways – often very subtle, hidden and implicit.

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“For example, these can occur in various spaces and in various ways — in tea rooms, elevators, boardrooms of law firms.

“And would often relate to the type of conversations lawyers have and who is allowed to engage in such conversations.

“In other instances, it may involve who gets invited to the firm’s social events and informal business trips.

“And by not being able to engage and attend invites, means limited networking opportunities which are vital to an attorney’s career progress, hence women become excluded, lose out on networking opportunities and their career opportunities are diminished.”

Meyer said women’s presence in the profession did not translate to their having a voice to facilitate any meaningful change actively.

This is not only because they don’t occupy positions of power which provides them with authority to add voice, but also due to a culture that silences women’s voices in the profession.

Meyer said meaningful transformation in the legal profession must be more than just meeting legislation and numeric targets.

“The enactment of legislation and the setting of numerical targets are indeed necessary and worthwhile, as this facilitates the opening and enabling of spaces and challenges inequality.

“However, it does not lead to any radical transformation or change. Legislation, policies and targets are unable to address the ways in which social closure operates to exclude and marginalise women.”

According to Meyer, a transformative and inclusive agenda for women in the legal profession must be more imaginative than enacting legislation, policy and numeric targets.

“To facilitate any meaningful change in the profession, we need to understand and interrogate how these are produced, maintained and reproduced.

“We will have to engage with subjective experiences of female lawyers, gender, racial and class regimes, how they interact with professional cultures and practices, and the societal perceptions and expectations placed on different groups.

“We also need to engage innovatively and address the perceptions and attitudes of attorneys, management, clients and women themselves, as they are central in fostering the transformation project of the profession,” said Meyer.