AMANDLA! WOMEN TO WATCH EDITION

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Dr. Nkiru Balonwu

Managing Partner, RDF Strategies
Founder & Co-Chair, African Women on Board (AWB)
Founder & Creative Director, The Africa Soft Power Project (ASP)

Why did you decide to study law?

I studied law because both of my parents were lawyers – plus, growing up, I loved a good debate!

In hindsight, studying law has provided me with the best foundation for everything I’m doing today – from influencing change in systems via my work with African Women on Board (AWB) and The Africa Soft Power Project, to assisting clients through my strategic communications firm RDF; not least because Africans, in particular, have high respect for more traditional professions like law, medicine, etc., so my clients feel comfortable acting on the advice I am giving them.

What is your proudest professional moment thus far?

Oh, there are several! Being the first lecturer to teach Gender & Law at the University of Lagos, becoming CEO of Spinlet, taking African Women on Board to UNGA, and most recently hosting the first ‘real-world’ Africa Soft Power Summit in Rwanda. Being able to pursue what you are passionate about is often a reward in itself.

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Looking back, what is one decision/action you would have done differently?

Again, there are quite a few…I would say that I’ve often left money on the table and, through my work at AWB, I now understand that many women suffer the same problem. We need to have more confidence in ourselves, and be aware that we can and should be on the same financial footing as men.

Share some major professional challenges you have faced, or continue to face as a woman in law.

Although I’m not a practicing lawyer, I’m sure that the challenges I currently face in business will be familiar to most if not all female lawyers around the world, not just on the continent.

Most decision-making rooms still tend to be run by men, which means that more often than not, our opinions and insights are still ignored/blocked/attributed to others. Throughout my career, I have dealt with this bias, and I have constantly worked twice as hard to prove myself – even when at times the results were already speaking for themselves.

But of course, we all also know that the issues run much deeper than this, don’t we? Dealing with varying levels of workplace harassment, being a primary carer for elderly parents or young children, while simultaneously being the main or sole breadwinner. These challenges are universal, and I think I am only beginning to see the full extent of them as I become older and wiser.

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What are some practical strategies for survival in the legal profession?

First of all, I would be mindful of using terms like ‘survival’. Like ‘victim’, I think these labels can at times inadvertently help perpetuate our subordinate status.

But for sure, it’s important to understand that the deck still is stacked against women and that we are operating in an unequal system. Becoming a member of a professional network can help – particularly a network that encourages and endorses men as allies instead of perpetuating and reinforcing sexist roles.

Gain as much knowledge as you can – know your rights, know the policies, and know who you can go to for help to ensure they are properly implemented. Always be aware and on top of your game in the professional environment, and above all else, be vocal. Silence can – quite literally – kill, and when you speak out against workplace inequality and harassment, you stand up not only for yourself but for the conditions of all women.