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Count Her In: Gender Equality in the Workplace

A Digest of IAWL’s 2024 International Women’s Day Event

For the 2024 International Women’s Day, the Institute for African Women in Law (IAWL) organized a professional development event on gender equality in the workplace. The event, held on March 7, 2023, was in collaboration with the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice. 

IAWL is set to launch a Gender Equality in Law Campaign (GELC) in April of this year. As such, the collaborative event was designed to align with the campaign and theme for International Women’s Day.  Two of the focus areas for IAWL’s GELC - equitable hiring and promotion and equal pay for equal work, align with the IWD theme, Accelerating gender equality through economic empowerment. The discussions unpacked how bar associations and societies, law firms and male allies within the legal profession can contribute to accelerating gender equality. 

The panellists were Belinda Mapongwana (Founder of Mapongwana Attorneys Inc. in South Africa), Dr Edem Okudzeto (Sam Okudzeto & Associates in Ghana), Wangari Joyce Kagai (Head of Public Interest Litigation and Advocacy at the Law Society of Kenya), and Dr Mathero Michelle Nkhalamba (Clinical Psychologist in Malawi). We had Isobel Acquah (Director of the Centre for Law and Innovation in Rwanda) moderate the event. With such a healthy mix of diverse legal and mental health experts, the conversations were enriching. Lorrain McGowen (Co-Chair of the Executive Committee of the Vance Center) started it with a solidarity message in which she emphasized the need to keep pushing for the gender equality agenda in the workplace and beyond.

Reflections on “Count Her In”

All panellists shared their thoughts on what the event's theme meant to them. Dr. Okudzeto, a male ally, began his reflection by highlighting the far-reaching impact of empowering women. To him, to empower a woman is to empower a nation, and so he called for “more visualization of empowered women” across the continent. To Ms. Kagai, counting women in meant there was the need to break barriers, challenge stereotypes and create economically empowering opportunities for women. Dr. Nkhalamba added a psychological perspective to the reflections by drawing on the empowerment theory. She mentioned that counting women in can contribute to their psychological empowerment by providing them with “financial resources, skills and opportunities they need to increase their sense of agency”. Ms. Mapongwana closed off the reflections, saying women have always been present in the home and workplace and have played vital roles but were not made visible by the men in power and leadership. “We count women in not because they have never been there before but because it is about time they are counted in”, she said.

Empowering women in law as a female-founder

In a racially diverse country like South Africa, Ms. Mapongwana, founder of Mapongwana Attorneys Inc., shared that she felt it was a personal responsibility to set up a law firm to create the kind of work environment she wanted to see as a black woman. In addition, she ventured into corporate and commercial practice, primarily focusing on mergers and acquisitions, which have historically excluded (black) women. Ms. Mapongwana also mentioned that when she realised her clientele was all male, she intentionally attracted female clients and employed more female lawyers. Today, her law firm is not only female-owned; it has an all-female team. It was no surprise that when asked about her firm’s strategy for economically empowering women, she gave a witty response, “We are the strategy … it is visual and actual representation”.

How bar associations can count women in 

Speaking specifically about the Law Society of Kenya (LSK), Ms. Kagai highlighted the importance of having women in leadership as a critical way for bar associations to be more inclusive of women. She cited the election of Faith Odhiambo, Kenya’s second-ever female president, last month as a practical example. She also mentioned that the 13-member Council of the LSK had six women. She added that the LSK has a Gender Committee, which is instrumental in mainstreaming women’s inclusion at the bar through programs such as mentorship, training and other collaborative activities with key stakeholders. Through these efforts, Ms. Kagai noted the progress the LSK is making in advancing gender equality at the bar.  

The contribution of male allies 

Regarding the role of men in accelerating gender equality within the legal profession, Dr. Okudzeto gave a list of actions men in decision-making positions can take. First, he called on men to be “very supportive” of women by giving them a voice and opportunities. For example, in his law firm, which is about 55% female, women have been supported such that they now occupy leadership positions - the managing partner and head of litigation are women. His law firm has also set up a daycare facility that enables women to work better, knowing their children are in good hands and close by. 

The second was mentorship. Dr. Okudzeto mentioned an unofficial mentor-mentee program at his law firm geared toward giving both male and female lawyers an equal footing for career progression and opportunities. Third was to create and implement policies. At his law firm, there is a zero-tolerance sexual harassment policy. He finally stated that men should avoid mansplaining, as he has learned to scale back to allow all voices to be heard. Ms. Acquah, the moderator, added that her mentor was a male ally who has been a driving force in her career progression. 

Mental health and the workplace 

Dr. Nkhalamba highlighted the psychological effects of a hostile work environment for women in law. Between trying to compete and prove oneself as a woman that you qualify for the work or position you are in, stress and anxiety can result, especially when the woman finds herself in a hostile work environment. Stress and anxiety are the byproducts of women having to be “masculine or even hyper-masculine” to be able to fit in male-dominated spaces like the legal profession. Burnout and loss of motivation are also repercussions of a hostile work environment. Over time, these pressures may lead to chronic stress and can accelerate breast cancer, hypertension and fatigue. In the end, the affected women have a negative review of a profession that they were once passionate about. 

On the other hand, in an inclusive environment where women’s unique challenges are understood and accommodated, women build resilience and empathy to push systemic change. Dr. Nkhalamba gave a three-step approach that leaders in the legal profession and the membership can use to support women’s mental health: acknowledging, policy-making, and creating supportive workspaces. The first step is to acknowledge that there are prevailing mental health issues. This acknowledgement is followed by relevant and intentional mental health policies to address them. Lastly, the work environment should be designed to ensure psychological safety because simply having policies or directing complainants to Human Resources is insufficient. Measures like instituting flexible work schedules that allow remote working and sick leave on mental health grounds are promising initiatives to implement. 

The one solution to addressing gender inequalities in the workplace 

To conclude the discussions, our panellists were asked to share the one solution they propose to address gender inequalities in the workplace. Ms. Mapongwana believed there is “not one solution but a number of efforts to be made”. However, policies are a start and must be monitored, particularly in the big and medium law firms, to ensure effective implementation. Ms. Kagai added that bar associations are responsible for providing continuous sensitization, mapping, monitoring and instituting reporting or complainant mechanisms concerning gender equality. Collaborations with other stakeholders to finance such initiatives are also vital. Dr. Okudzeto’s one solution was for male allies to put themselves in the shoes of women and treat women just like how they would want their wives or daughters to be treated. Finally, Dr. Nkhalamba said every workspace should have a mental well-being program, such as stress management training, to allow people to discuss issues that may not come up in other meetings. “A healthy workforce means high productivity. It is a necessary investment for every law firm”, she concluded.  

Learn how you can join us to advocate for women in law as we launch the Gender Equality in Law Campaign in April by subscribing to our mailing list to receive the latest updates. 

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