Women’s Day - Members of our Projects and Infrastructure practice speak about their experiences as women in law

8 Aug 2013 5 min read Article

Women lawyers in the Projects and Infrastructure (P&I) practice at Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr feel that in the professional service industry, equality between male and female lawyers is no longer a debate, but that there still are gender specific challenges with regards to the balance between work and family demands.

“I think we are beyond the debate about whether men and women are equal in the professional services industry. However, while men and women have the same professional demands, we have different demands when it comes to home life and it is these differences that need to be recognised in a professional services context,” says Claire Barclay, Director in the Projects and Infrastructure practice.

“It can be particularly tough of women in the professional services industry who are essentially in the business of selling time. Time is a finite commodity - there are only so many hours in day. On the one hand, we operate in a paradigm where career success and reward is linked directly to the time spent on the job. Attending to family takes away from this, so professional women inevitably need to make a value judgement on how to prioritise their time. I think my male colleagues face this too, but the social norm is that it is far more acceptable for a man to prioritise his work over family commitments than it is for a woman.

“In this quest for time, something has to give, either one has to work less or outsource home and family commitments. I think that women who are successful have become very resourceful time managers,” says Barclay.

“I do think women need to take ownership of the various caps they wear and to be more vocal about their private life responsibilities. If a scheduled meeting conflicts with an important family duty, a woman professional needs to be able to prioritise her family commitments without the fear of being judged as uncommitted or unprofessional,” says Barclay.

Lyle Horsley, a Senior Associate in the P&I practice agrees that the dialogue with regards to women in law is no longer about issues of perceived competence.

“Projects and Infrastructure is largely a male-dominated sector but I have never had any issues with my competence being questioned as a woman in this sector. We are in a service industry and as such the priority is whether we can deliver the service or not and not what gender we are.

“However, as a young married professional intent on starting a family, there are challenges. For instance, how to manage the demands of a career and continue to fulfil my responsibilities at home. These are still discussions many more women have than men.

“Women also have a responsibility to support and mentor other women in the profession. And the more women share their stories and talk openly about  home life responsibilities and the fact that we are juggling work and family life, the more we can learn from one another to try and overcome our respective challenges,” she notes.

Jay Govender, Director in the P&I practice feels that the gap between men and women in the workplace in South Africa is progressively becoming smaller.

“Our practice area was in the past typically dominated by our male colleagues.  Over time, and certainly in the energy space in which I practice, the number of women has grown.  Granted there are times when I have had to assert myself to be taken seriously, but clients recognise ability and competence and after first impressions, gender does become superfluous,” she says.

“I have seen women lawyers shine in our  practice area – maybe because it is an area so analogous to the real life women lead at home on a daily basis – a life of management and multi-tasking, leading in an unassuming manner, having organisation skills without trying and taking a cue from the innate emotional intelligence most women possess.  When coupled with technical ability, all these attributes provide the foundation for a successful P&I lawyer,” she explains.

“However,” she notes, “life as  practicing woman lawyer is not without its challenges, stemming back to the age-old debate of balancing a career and home life. In my own experience, many of my male counterparts and clients have grown to know and appreciate that I am more than just a lawyer and mostly respect my personal time with my family.  But reaching that level of understanding takes years of relationship and confidence building,” she says.

Zahra Omar, a Director in the P&I practice says that although the glass ceiling is still a reality that women in law have to face, it is less prevalent in Africa than in countries like Canada. 

Drawing on her experience of having practiced in both South Africa and Canada she observes, "Canadian law firms tend to be more traditional and patriarchal than South African law firms.  Perhaps this is a function of the firms in the northern hemisphere having been around for a lot longer.  African law firms are comparatively newer and less bound by tradition, and as such I feel they are more open to women in leadership roles.

“I feel that it is a very exciting time for lawyers, regardless of gender, to working in Africa.  The world is looking to Africa and as we gain exposure and learn from international best practice, it is critical that we do not lose sight of what makes Africa, Africa.  The South African Departments of Energy’s Independent Power Producers Procurement Programme was very successful in combining global best practice with the need for localisation and working on this has been great experience.

Omar observes that women have certain characteristics such as sensitivity that really helps in a service orientated industry such as law. 

“Ours is a service industry," she notes, "we deal with people with different personalities and we cannot ignore the human factor of our work.  Sensitivity is the ability to perceive and understand different personalities.  This gives us an ability to understand the people we interact with and this helps us to manage relationships with clients.

“At the end of the day, passion for one’s work is not gender specific,” she says.

Emma Dempster, a Senior Associate in the P&I practice says that working predominantly in the construction law sector,  she believes that women have managed to successfully establish themselves in this previously male dominated area. 

“It would be naive should I suggest that women are always viewed equally and that we never encounter an initial challenge to our legal authority based on an assumption that we do not understand the legal complexities of the construction industry.

“However,  I like to think that, despite any initial obstacles or prejudgments, we get judged on our work and not our gender and that over time if the work produced continues to be of a high standard, the acceptance of women in this sector will continue to grow

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