by Adv Jackie Nagtegaal – Managing Director at LAW FOR ALL
I had the great fortune of being raised by a working mom who championed equality in all sectors of society. She was an intersectional feminist, way before it was in vogue or I even knew what it meant. Growing up with that privilege, I landed in the world of law, bright-eyed, expecting the industry to shine on the principles my mother (also a lawyer) taught me. But I quickly learnt things were not as rosy as I perceived them to be, especially when it came to creating an inclusive workplace for women in law.
The reality for women in the legal industry in South Africa
Gender inequality is one of the most complex issues of our time. It is a tradition that persists and thrives in post-apartheid South Africa even- somewhat ironically- in the country’s legal landscape. It doesn’t make sense to me that an institution that’s in place to enforce the ideals of fairness and equality perpetuates the discrimination that it should be fighting.
Under-representation in senior positions
Over the last 25 years, more women have chosen a career in the law, but from courtrooms to boardrooms, they are still severely underrepresented. From the number of women in the Constitutional Court has remained unchanged: two in 1994 and two in 2014; while the percentage of women in the other High Courts remains below 30%. Not to mention, the Commission for Gender Equality recently canvassed 12 of the country’s biggest firms and found that 80% of the chief executives were white men, as were 72% of the managing partners.
Laws that perpetuate sexism
The architecture of our economy and households have changed, but the legal minds who have to evolve the rules and regulations whereby we live have not kept up with this shift. Male perspective still dramatically influences the law. As a result, we run the risk of creating rules that don’t match the playing field. For instance, take the Basic Conditions of Employment Act, which sees parental leave still being a responsibility that rests significantly on women. Inequality has a dire effect on their careers and the gender equality gap in the workplace.
Sexual harassment in law firms
After the #MeToo became a trending topic on social media and a movement around the world, the prevalence of sexual harassment in various sectors was exposed. Sadly, the legal industry is no exception. According to Business Insider, almost half (the exact figure is 43%) of women legal professionals have experienced sexual harassment at work.
What’s the problem? Where’s the disconnect?
If you ask a man, the answer will often be something along the lines of women ‘being insufficiently rational and too intellectually inferior’ to be litigators and handle the pressures of a career in law. But, when you are asking a man, you are, more often than not, posing the question to the seemingly impenetrable wall of patriarchy. A barrier that’s built of bricks of ignorance and solidified by sexist perceptions. It’s the wall that contains and conceals the rampant gender inequality that still exists today.
When company culture normalises the objectification of women colleagues and perpetuates the absurd idea that women attorneys are more efficient on cases ‘that women can relate to’, it institutionalises discrimination. Not to mention, we have to apply an intersectional lens to create awareness around the added discrimination experienced by African and queer women.
Sexism can be super subliminal. It is always there, but only if you want to see it—a lot like race. If you’re white, racism passes you by. You don’t notice the slight shift in attitude, the white establishments with black workers, the black-only workforce picking up garbage, cleaning houses and doing the ‘invisible’ jobs. You only see it if you care to look.
Shifting paradigms and breaking the tradition at LAW FOR ALL
Just the other day, after a meeting, a male executive asked me to “relax” on the issue of gender equality because “it’s not a thing any more; women have rights”. But that is only true for some women in some places. Many women around the world are excluded from education, commerce, and participating in democratic processes.
But even in countries such as South Africa, we need theoretical gender equality to become practical gender equality, and we can only achieve this if institutions uphold and implement the true values of our Constitution and take a wrecking ball to the patriarchal wall. As a leader, I resolved to collaborate with my teams to make the LAW FOR ALL a place in which other women can thrive and perform to the best of their abilities. Today, we are a 50% female-owned company, and of the 73% of women employed at LAW FOR ALL, 62% are black women. What’s more, at LAW FOR ALL, we take sexual harassment very seriously and have strict policies in place to ensure that the women who work at the company feel safe and can excel. We are adamant about sending a clear message about what acceptable and respectable behaviour is at our company.
At LAW FOR ALL, we are proud of championing equality. We are well represented, and we understand that misogyny blooms when women are not half of the decision-makers, leaders and directors. We create a structural place where equality is the norm, and all employees feel supported. For example, LAW FOR ALL was one of the first companies to offer paternity leave before it became a legal requirement, and we offer maternity leave with full pay.
Gender equality starts at home
Of course, our workplaces matter, a lot. But the most significant place to start is the home. Conversations I had with my mother about fairness and equality still resonate with me today, and I often discuss these topics with my kids.
We need to build homes where parents are equal partners in child-rearing and all acts of domesticity, as an example to our children. Raise girls as explorers and astronauts. The sweet, well-meaning act of calling our daughter a little princess and putting her in a fairy dress, makes her believe that she is, it conditions her to a life where she needs to be “looked after”. Teach her to manage wealth, laugh and read. To explore and experience. To live, so that one day, when she is older, she can help build a better world. And we should teach our sons the same. There is no difference between them; let them see that.