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Women in Law in Nigeria: Breaking Barriers and Shaping the Future

Nigeria Supreme Court judge Justice Amina Augie with some dignitaries in the legal profession at the IAWL launch of Women in Law in Leadership reports in Nigeria. Photo credit: IAWL.

Women in law in Nigeria have had a unique journey of development as they did not encounter as much systemic resistance during their entrance compared to women in many other African countries. Surprisingly, women’s initial discrimination challenges were from clients and the public, not from their colleagues. However, this challenge did not hinder their progress and growth in the different sectors of the profession (bar, bench and legal academy).

The Institute for African Women in Law (IAWL) conducted extensive research on women in law and leadership in four countries, including Nigeria. The initiative explored the barriers to entry, points of attrition in the pipeline, barriers to leadership, facilitators of promotion, and progress and trends regarding women’s representation in the legal profession through an intersectional feminist lens.

This study highlighted the following key findings.

Breaking Barriers

The Bar

The Nigerian legal profession (bar) is experiencing an increase in the number of women being called to the bar each year. Significantly, many remarkable women are breaking new ground and becoming "firsts" in the legal profession. For example, women are rising to managing partner positions in Nigerian law firms, as highlighted in the IAWL Gender Scorecard for 2023.

Unfortunately, some women choose to exit the legal profession, particularly in the early stages of their careers. Individual factors such as marriage and childbirth often contribute to this decision. Those that stay in the profession face barriers in reaching leadership positions, including:

• The procedural requirements for becoming a senior advocate of Nigeria (SAN).

• Sexual harassment and intimidation in the workplace

• Unspoken gender biases and stereotypes against women

• The negative implications of COVID-19.

• Lack of support for families in the workplace

• Limited capacity and self-imposed barriers

• Lack of mentoring opportunities

• Debilitating patriarchal culture

These challenges create shifting "glass ceilings" that women encounter at different stages, resulting in considerable leaks in the pipeline to leadership. The conclusion is clear- there is still much work to be done to increase the number of women at the bar and women senior advocates.

The Bench

Women in the Nigerian judiciary have made significant progress in attaining leadership roles within the judiciary since the 1990s. The appointment of Mariam Aloma Mukhtar as the first female Chief Justice in 2012 was a moment of celebration and immense pride for women across Nigeria.

Despite this win, women in the judiciary still face barriers to reaching leadership positions, including:

• Work-life balance

• Lack of mentorship and support systems for female judges

• The limiting effect of intersecting federal character and indigeneity requirements for promotion

• The quest for perfection from women and caseloads leading to burnout

• The negative implications of COVID-19

• The limited number of women in the highest leadership positions at the various judiciary levels and certain geographic parts of Nigeria.

Interestingly, most female judges in Nigeria oppose quotas or affirmative action to address gender imbalance, believing the promotion system is fair. Yet, barriers to their advancement go beyond gender, including ethnicity and geopolitical factors.

The Academy

The traditional barriers and discrimination against women in the Nigerian legal academy are slowly fading away- a positive sign that women are being recognized for their talents and expertise in this field.

However, in the past 15 years, more stringent requirements have been introduced to the recruitment and promotion process within the Nigerian legal academy. For example, the requirement of a Ph.D., unfortunately, caused many women to leave due to challenges in balancing studies and family.

In addition, women in the legal academy in Nigeria face the following barriers to leadership:

• Intersectional discrimination in hiring practices

• Negative stereotypes about women's leadership abilities

• Women's different negotiation and networking skills

• Work-life balance

• Lack of institutionalized mentoring opportunities

• Women's limited capacity to engage with leadership demands, and

• Negative impact of COVID-19.

Shaping the future

Despite the identified barriers, the future for women in law and leadership in Nigeria looks promising. As more women enter the profession, they bring fresh perspectives, diverse experiences, and a commitment to driving positive change. Nigerian law schools are increasingly enrolling more female students, reflecting the shifting dynamics within the profession.

The IAWL reports further provide recommendations to facilitate the promotion of women in law to leadership positions, including the following:

  • creating mentoring opportunities,

  • creating work environments that promote work-life balance,

  • conducting gender audits to understand women’s specific needs,

  • turning gatekeepers into male allies, and

  • providing constant leadership training opportunities.

These reports are the first step in IAWL's five-year strategic goal to support women in law and leadership in Africa. Through training and advocacy, IAWL will continue to support women in law to thrive and set new standards for excellence in Nigeria's legal landscape.


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