The advocacy for the welfare of women has come a long way and the annual celebration in March has indeed become a very salient part of the work towards gender equality, representation and career success.
Women’s month is no longer receiving the placid mention in the news or the token representation of sparsely attended events with a linear agenda sans due consideration of core issues that affect women in the workplace. It has become a series of lively moments, a coordinated choreography featuring a well-thought-out global theme and synchronised events seeking real to life solutions to the daily challenges encountered by women in all spheres of life. With each edition, there is affirmative action that propels the welfare of women forward. More inspiring is the fact that year on year, additional pods of influence are created with organisations signing up to innovate around the sustainable development goals and articulate organisational objectives geared at gender equality and increased representation of women.
This year, the theme, #Choosetochallenge could not be more apt, when set in the context of a world recovering from the Covid -19 pandemic. Statistics show that more women were driven out of the paid workforce due to the collapse of the childcare sector and the reduction or absence of the option of school because of the pandemic. These losses are yet to be quantified locally, but the world of work as known is under scrutiny. One of the germane questions being asked is how the world of work can be modified to better suit the personal challenges women face, enable resilience and high performance without loss of gains previously made on equality in the world of work.
The big idea is to inspire bold actions by women both at the organisational and personal levels to ensure true representation, close the power gap and induce ingenious solutions to the disproportionate impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Bringing these broad objectives to the legal services sector and how this space is organised, there is no doubt, a lot to review and challenge. In many ways, women are underrepresented, discountenanced, discriminated against and stereotyped. Female lawyers are still being excluded from relevant work, remuneration is inequitable and accommodations for family life which is a salient part of the societal construct are not made. Women face discrimination at maternity and in some cases, are excluded from earned benefits for sexist reasons. There are also widely adopted practices which are outdated and antithetical to progress advocated for. For instance:
- female lawyers are yet to be recognised in the courts of law; titular references are restricted to male prefixes and suffixes. The saying that there are “no women at the bar” still obtains suggesting that all the women who have become lawyers are yet to be seen.
- female lawyers are often asked to indicate whether or not they are married in court and this is not relevant where a male lawyer appears before the court. While this may seem irrelevant, it reinforces some of the limiting stereotype.
- more serious issues such as sexual harassment are handled with flippancy by most organisations and women are caught in the web of contesting for their personal dignity or being given a chance to work.
The power gap is probably the most critical issue to be challenged as only a sprinkling of women seem to stay long enough to attain pinnacle career success.
There is no better time than the present, to review these critical issues as the world of work reorganises post-covid 19. Law firms, corporate organisations and entities which are served by female lawyers must intentionally reconstrue their structure and make adjustments which recognise and respect female lawyers. In my opinion, the central considerations should seek to:
1. Put an end to the career boycott by female lawyers.
The funnel into practice has healthy representation for female lawyers and this is on the increase. Add on a few years of practice and there is a gradual attrition; the power gap in the legal services industry is too severe. To get a clearer picture one needs only to ask, “how many female SANs have been appointed?”, “How many partners/senior partners or founders are female?” The more you interrogate, the less representation you will find at the top.
The causes for this attrition are not far from mind. Female lawyers still work in a society that defines women by domestic roles and shames women who seek to negotiate the relevance of these roles vis-à-vis career choices. Not too many workspaces are safe enough to enable a woman confidently juggle work and family life without fear of missing out on career relevance. It is this fear that typically triggers premature exits by female lawyers and statistics show that diversity and inclusion of female lawyers is still a central concern in the legal services industry.
The correctional work required is a joint effort of the individual and organisations to reorganise the workspace for the success of the female lawyer. She must be given the chance to succeed, and prejudices must walk out the room in the decision making about her career. High performance must be rewarded equitably, and reasonable accommodations are to be made without prejudice.
More senior representation is needed in the legal services industry for female lawyers and this call is urgent. As such, women also need to choose to stay; stay and defend, stay and represent. This is to ensure that whether it is in the court room, the partners’ table, the bench or the boardroom, female lawyers are sufficiently represented and creating a pathway for increased participation. Good intentions will not achieve these objectives, clearly mapped out goals which are implemented and monitored.
2. Deal with Implicit bias
There are several notions which underpin the positioning of female lawyers within the industry, they determine to date, salient career metrices such as compensation, nomination to positional leadership, resource allocation and even work allocation. These notions strip female lawyers of capacity and impose ceilings to their growth. These biases may not be erasable but their impact on the career of female lawyers may be obviated by affirmative action that seeks to increase the quotient of inclusion until female lawyers are equally represented. Tokenism and mandatory quotas are not enough as the bias kicks in to impede the natural progression that results once these quotas are attained.
Work done by organisations such as the International Federation of Women lawyers (FIDA) and the Nigerian Bar Association Women’s Forum (NBAWF) is more relevant to cure implicit bias and these organisations are to re-educate our institutions to do so.
The challenge is clear; representation, diversity, inclusion but more importantly, reorganisation of the workplace for her safety, balance and career success is an urgent need to be addressed both by individuals as well as organisations that hire them.
Oyeyemi Aderibigbe is a Senior Associate at Templars law firm and the Chairperson, Nigerian Bar Association, Section on Business Law, Young Lawyers Committee.