Challenges Facing Women of Colour in the Legal Profession in South Africa
Mollica Dubey Maharaj
Rahman and Rahman Law, Gauteng, South Africa
In the late 1990s, the South African Department of Justice stated that the legal profession in South Africa needed to be transformed not only to cater to the legal needs of South Africans from all backgrounds, but also to ensure that the profession represents the diversity of South African society.
For example, last year, a group of senior women lawyers wrote a letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa expressing their outrage that no female advocates of colour were appointed to assist the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) with state capture prosecutions. The appointment of male prosecutors was justified by the appointing authorities by the fact that those lawyers were well versed on the case. This highlighted the status of female lawyers of colour, revealing that they do not share the same access to opportunities as their male counterparts within the field.
While black female lawyers remain underrepresented in the legal profession, many have opened their own practices and provide the necessary legal services required by their clients. The 1996 Constitution of South Africa grants women wider representation, but more transformation is needed because female lawyers of colour still face many hurdles on their path to building a career in law. This blog post will look at a few of the challenges that women of colour face in the legal profession in South Africa.
1. Lack of basic skills
The observation in the legal fraternity is that graduates are not adequately skilled in areas such as comprehension and reading ability. The appointment and adequate training of female paralegals of colour would help mitigate the imbalance by giving them the experience they need to excel with these skills.
2. Reinforcement of gender stereotypes
The misconception that women lawyers are less capable of doing their job persists. Many female lawyers of colour suffer with ‘imposter syndrome’ – the idea that they are not good enough to be in the field. It is perpetuated by the assumption that race and gender determine capability. According to this interview with Belinda Mapongwana, this limiting belief prevents them from taking on challenging cases and pursuing leadership positions.
3. Workplace harassment
A survey conducted by the International Bar Associations revealed that South Africa has the worst rates of bullying and harassment within the industry. According to the report, only 42% of South African respondents said they had confidence in those responsible for handling their complaints, and only 7% of legal professionals had undergone relevant training.
While government has an important role to play in creating pathways for graduates to enter the field, it is up to the public and private sectors to ensure that these opportunities are made available to those that need them most. This applies to the legal sector as well.
At Rahman & Rahman, we believe that transformation in the legal sector is the key to unlocking the potential of young lawyers from previously disadvantaged and vulnerable backgrounds.
Our programmes are designed to equip graduates with the skills they need to pursue a fruitful career in the legal sector and contribute meaningfully to the legal sector. Rahman and Rahman began the paralegal empowerment and transformation programme in 2014 to do just that – provide young graduates an opportunity to put their theoretical knowledge into practice, thereby preparing them for the real challenges of the legal profession. We urge and encourage other BBBEE businesses to commit to a training programme which will mitigate the impacts of gender imbalances.