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Can a male-dominated legal industry achieve meaningful reforms for women?

Despite shocking accounts of harassment and discrimination within their profession, women lawyers in Zimbabwe and beyond are fighting for more gender-sensitive laws.

Chief judges of the Supreme Court, Harare 2017. Photo: NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.The first woman lawyer in Zimbabwe was admitted to the bar in 1928. But it wasn’t until 1980 that the country had its first woman magistrate – and just this year, the first woman Deputy Chief Justice was sworn in.  

Currently, 70% of law students in Zimbabwe are women. Their admissions increased by 35% from 2013 to 2016. Women’s absence from high-level positions is not, therefore, a question of capability. It’s the direct result of underlying discrimination and harassment in the legal profession.

Seemingly neutral policies entrench discrimination. Associates receive a low and unregulated ‘base salary’ from their law firms, for example. To make a living and grow professionally, they must surpass a monthly revenue target set by their firm; often referred to as ‘eat what you kill’.

Starting out, young lawyers rarely have their own clients and must rely on (overwhelmingly male) senior partners for work. Making a sexual harassment complaint can negatively impact chances of finding work.

Women on maternity leave must rely on their base salary, leaving them far behind in pay and in their careers upon returning to work.

Women’s absence from high-level positions is a direct result of underlying discrimination and harassment in the legal profession.

These problems are not unique to Zimbabwe. In the UK, a survey of 1,000 legal professionals in the top 100 law firms found that 42% of women had experienced workplace sexual harassment or discrimination.

A similar survey of 3,500 female legal professionals in New Zealand showed that one-third had experienced workplace harassment.

Recent research by the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission revealed cases of women lawyers locking themselves in toilets while male colleagues joked about rape – and nasty cross-examinations of rape victims. Such incidents were covered-up by non-disclosure agreements.

In the US, some law firms went as far as using mandatory arbitration clauses to prevent victims of sexual harassment from suing in court.

Widespread harassment of women has contributed to maintaining the gender imbalance in the legal profession worldwide. In 2017, women made up 48% of the lawyers in UK law firms, but only 33% of their partners. In large firms, women constituted 29% of partners.

A survey of large corporate law firms in South Africa revealed a similar picture, despite women constituting 55% of law students in the country. A lack of research in Zimbabwe means that the precise gap between male and female partners in this country remains unknown.

Attempted rape and dismissal for refusing to ‘play along’ are among the profession’s best-kept secrets.

Formal complaints of harassment to regulating bodies are rarely made in Zimbabwe. Denialists point to this ‘lack of evidence’ to dismiss conversations about harassment and discrimination in the profession.

In Zimbabwe, attempted rape, being trapped in senior partners’ offices, groping by male colleagues, casual sex proposals and dismissals for refusing to ‘play along’ are the legal profession’s best-kept secrets.

Regulations against sexual harassment are, on their own, not enough. While seemingly-neutral policies – like the ‘eat what you kill’ system – go unreformed, silence remains the only option.

Scales of Justice, 2012. Photo: Flickr/Michael Coghlan. Some rights reserved. CC BY-SA 2.0.Yet, these challenges have not halted progress on gender-sensitive legal reform, and in some contexts, they have even inspired it.

#Metoo movements have sparked important discussions which could lead to policy and legal reforms in sectors including the legal industry in the US and other countries.

Key milestones have been reached in Zimbabwe including reforms to end child marriages, improve access to justice for women in customary unions and remove barriers for women to be legal guardians of their children.

Women’s rights advocates individually and collectively fought for these reforms. Since 1992, the Zimbabwe Women Lawyers Association has been instrumental in assisting women to access justice in family and inheritance law.

The number of women who own their law firm in Zimbabwe is small but growing, and senior women lawyers are increasingly supporting their younger counterparts.

Women Law Connect, founded in 2015, is a Facebook platform for women lawyers in Zimbabwe to share opportunities and experiences, find mentors and mentees, celebrate successes and expose abuse in the workplace.

“The assumption is that women lawyers set the example of fighting against discrimination and harassment.”

Lawyers are often seen as brave, assertive, warrior-like, ‘gladiators in suits’. The assumption is that women lawyers set the example of fighting against discrimination and harassment.

The idea of women ‘gladiators in suits’ being oppressed on their own ‘turf’ does not inspire confidence in their ability to influence societal change.

But history shows us that women have fought for equality in the legal profession, and also for gender-sensitive legal reform, with significant success. The legal profession does not have to be perfect before such reforms and access to justice for women can be achieved.

About the author

Elizabeth Mangenje is a Zimbabwean human rights lawyer who is passionate about women's rights and business and human rights. She is a legal advisor at the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), Zimbabwe office. She writes in her personal capacity.


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