Black women attorneys are still marginalised

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The study demonstrated the challenges confronting women attorneys and how they experienced marginalisation and inequality. Photo: Unsplash/Tingey Injury Law Firm
The study demonstrated the challenges confronting women attorneys and how they experienced marginalisation and inequality. Photo: Unsplash/Tingey Injury Law Firm


A doctoral research by Tamlynne Meyer has discovered that women attorneys, especially black women, continue to be marginalised and still find it difficult to secure senior positions in law firms.

Meyer, who recently obtained her doctorate in sociology at Stellenbosch University, said her study considered the materiality of the everyday lives of women attorneys as they encountered and experienced being attorneys in a historically white male-dominated middle-class profession.

She said the study also demonstrated the challenges confronting women attorneys and how they experienced marginalisation and inequality.

For her research, she asked two questions: To what extent had the profession been feminised and what factors impeded women’s career prospects?

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She collected the quantitive data using statistics from the Law Society of SA’s lead database and she also interviewed women lawyers to examine the complexity of the factors that impeded career prospects, and how they came to experience closure and marginalisation within the profession.

She said:

Even though women have made great strides in the legal profession in South Africa, and their numbers have steadily increased, they still find it difficult to occupy senior positions or become partners in law firms.

Meyer said her study shed light on the gendered organisational, social and cultural factors that impacted the experiences of women attorneys, thereby enabling social closure and compounding the status quo of white male domination in the profession.

She said this often manifested itself through the culture that the legal profession valued and respected the masculinised and white middle class.

She added that women’s presence in the profession did not translate to their having a voice to facilitate any meaningful active change.

“This is not only because they don’t occupy positions of power that provide them with authority to add their voice, but also due to a culture that silences women’s voices in the profession. Meaningful transformation in the legal profession must be more than just meeting legislation and numeric targets. The enactment of legislation and the setting of numerical targets are indeed necessary and worthwhile, as this facilitates the opening and enabling of spaces and challenges inequality,” she said.

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She said legislation, policies and targets were unable to address how social closure excluded and marginalised women.

Meyer said that a transformative and inclusive agenda for women in the legal profession must be more imaginative.

“To facilitate any meaningful change in the profession, we need to understand and interrogate how these are produced, maintained and reproduced.” Meyer said:

We also need to engage innovatively and address the perceptions and attitudes of attorneys, management, clients and women, as they are central in fostering the transformation project of the profession.


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