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IAWL Reports Reveal Cracks in the Concrete Ceiling for Women in Law and Leadership in South Africa

A section of attendees at the launch of the IAWL Women in Law in Leadership reports in South Africa. Credit: IAWL.

South Africa’s legal profession today is female-strong, having allowed women’s entry 100 years ago in 1923. With masses of women entering the profession, it is only reasonable to expect that they trickle up the leadership ladder and eventually have equal representation in leadership. Yet, the leadership of South Africa’s legal profession remains predominantly masculine. While there was a glass ceiling for women’s entry into the legal profession, which was relatively easier to shatter in the last century, Dawuni characterized that of the profession’s leadership as a concrete ceiling – requiring women to fight harder to break. IAWL’s 2023 study of women in law and leadership in South Africa’s legal profession revealed that: the bench suffers from deputy syndrome, the bar is plagued with a bottom-heavy trend, and the legal academy is experiencing a strong and growing female leadership in the academy.

The deputy syndrome at the bench

As of February 2022, women formed 31% of the leadership at the superior courts, forming a critical mass of women needed to drive equal representation of women in the future. The factors explaining women’s increasing numeric strength in leadership are constitutional provisions that require the judiciary to reflect the gender composition of the country, activism by civil society actors, leadership-driven efforts by the South African Chapter of the International Association of Women Judges (SAC-IAWJ), and female judges’ self-confidence and other innate leadership traits.

Despite this progressive direction, many of the women in judicial leadership are in deputy positions. Multiple factors account for this pattern, although systemic barriers of lack of political will of the executive and lack of commitment to women’s leadership by institutional gatekeepers like the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) rank high. Other barriers that prevent or slow down’s women’s leadership prospects in the judiciary were found to include: the uneven playing field for women due to patriarchal attitudes, work-life balance, sexist practices, and female judges’ personal traits that make them hesitate to pursue leadership.

The prevailing deputy syndrome the report identified found expression in the subsequent appointment of Justice Maya as the deputy chief justice. An outcome that has been described as a missed opportunity because her initial nomination for chief justice, which presented South Africa with a golden opportunity to appoint its first female chief justice, was not realized. The implication of the deputy syndrome at the bench is that even though female judges rise to the top of the judiciary’s leadership, they mostly occupy second-in-command positions to their male counterparts - a concrete ceiling indeed!

The bottom-heavy trend at the bar

The rapid feminization at the bar is not significantly reflected in its leadership. A 2021/22 Lexis Nexis report showed a 5% increase in female legal professionals and a 7% increase in fully female-owned law firms in the last five years. Three elements explain the increase: progressive gender equality laws and policies, institutional efforts to transform the legal profession, including its gender composition, and the increase of women into the various law faculties who eventually graduate to become lawyers.

Nonetheless, feminizing the bar’s leadership is slow. There are more female lawyers in associate positions. IAWL’s Genderscorecard, for instance shows that, as of 2021, 66% of senior associates and 79% of associates in ENS Africa were women, yet only 36% of executive positions went to women. Similarly, Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr had no female managing partner, although some women (37%) were directors. Most senior associates (69%) and associates (67%) were women. At the institutional level, the Law Society of South Africa (LSSA) had not had a female president since its inception in 1998 until March 2022, when Mabaeng Lenyai was elected. A consequence of this bottom-heavy trend is attrition, especially from big law firms, and female lawyers being gaslighted for questioning a differential treatment.

Common factors that account for this trend at the bar are society’s perception of women’s abilities and motherhood, the old boy club phenomenon, lack of mentorship and organizational support from law associations, and women’s burden to overperform. These came up in addition to predominant barriers in the existing literature, such as differential treatment of women related to remuneration and career progression, the intersectionality of gender, race and age, sexual harassment, physical, verbal, and/or emotional abuse, and clients’ demands for male lawyers. Together, these form the concrete ceiling that women at the bar must fight to reach the top.

A female strong legal academy

Among the three sectors, the legal academy’s leadership light shines brightest. Our study showed that women’s representation in the legal academy and its leadership is growing. As of May 2022, there were 25 women in executive and administrative leadership across 17 law faculties: five female deans, eight female deputy deans or school heads, and 12 female heads of departments. The factors leading to the growing trend of women in leadership in the legal academy outnumber that of the bench and bar. They include:

  • Introduction of a new constitutional framework

  • Enforcement of anti-discrimination laws and regulations

  • Introduction of affirmative action

  • Social and cultural transformations on gendered norms and expectations

  • Increasing female enrolment and increased opportunities for (black) women in education

  • Women consider academia a more flexible job option

  • Men no longer seek positions in academia

Despite a female strong legal academy, women still face barriers in pursuing leadership due to factors like institutional culture and the lingering “old-boys club”, the high context of legal academia, gender stereotypes and bias about leadership, motherhood and work-life balance, contested opportunities for leadership advancement, women’s mixed view of leadership in academia, the race factor, ageism, sexism, and sexual harassment.

Breaking the concrete ceiling

The leadership ceiling may be concrete, but it is breakable. It cannot be broken solely by individual efforts; it will take collective efforts. For this reason, the recommendations in IAWL’s report are targeted for each sector. For example, at the bench, institutional gatekeepers, on the one hand, are urged to offer equal opportunities for substantive and acting leadership to level the playing field and make concerted efforts to appoint female judges for head positions and not just second-in-command positions. On the other hand, civil society and advocacy groups are called on to undertake more proactive advocacy before appointments, given their critiques of appointments. At the bar, law firms and organizations were advised to institute measures to advance women’s rise to the top, including training and mentorship programs, shaping clients' demands, and providing fair briefing patterns. It is also recommended that law societies take up more advocacy for women’s leadership. Within the legal academy, women are encouraged to be intentional with their collaborative efforts to overcome research barriers. Higher education institutions should also conduct regular and transparent promotion policy reviews. Each stakeholder playing their part will create the village needed to advance women’s leadership in the legal profession.


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