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Melene Rossouw

Executive Director at Women Lead Movement
Obama Foundation Scholar

Why did you decide to study law?

Law was not my first career option. I wanted to study political science with the aim of becoming a diplomat. Fortunately things did not work out the way I envisaged and I soon found myself enrolled as an LL.B student. It was only in my second year when I was introduced to Public and Constitutional law and learned about Human Rights when I begun to immerse myself in it. I chose that area of the law as my area of specialization. Today I am an internationally recognized human rights activist with a strong focus on socio-economic rights, democracy and governance.

What is your proudest professional moment thus far?

My proudest moment was being admitted as an attorney in the High Court of South Africa. Whilst serving my articles at the firm I enrolled for my Masters degree in Constitutional law. Those two years were challenging as I had to manage work, part-time classes and preparation for board examinations.

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

My philosophy on life and career is that everything that happened to me, happened for me. Although there have been difficult seasons in my career, it all molded me into the professional that I am today and for that reason I do not have a desire to do anything differently.

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

Most, if not all women in the legal profession deal with similar challenges. The biggest overarching challenge is gender inequality rooted in the system of patriarchy. The profession is still dominated by men who continue to earn more than women with the same experience and qualifications. Over the years I have always worked in spaces dominated by men and found that my experience, voice and knowledge were often undermined and disrespected by male colleagues even if they had to report to me. Disturbing trends amongst my male counterparts were their ability to out rightly reject my inputs and ideas but later present it as their own. For many years I have not been acknowledged or recognized for my contributions in the same way they would for doing far less. These toxic work spaces can become emotionally, spiritually and mentally abusive and without proper support can lead to depression.

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

I have never subscribed to the notion of “Survival” as it denotes a sense of disadvantage. Women in law are fierce, courageous and absolutely brilliant. Over the years I have consistently invested in and honed six things: courage, empathy, authenticity, discipline, integrity and knowledge. These are my strategies to thrive in my career and it is all you need to overcome any situation you are faced with.

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