March 8 is International Women’s Day
This year the global theme for International Women’s Day is #BreakTheBias. Irrespective of whether deliberate or unintentional, bias makes it difficult for women to move ahead. Acknowledging the existence of bias is not enough - action and activism are critical to creating societies in which every person has equal rights and opportunities and are able to engage these freely, fairly and easily.
Women’s rights do not stand in isolation. Equality for women and girls is not only a crucial human right but is an important part of the journey toward sustainable social and economic development, and the creation of societies in which gender, race, sexual orientation and ethnicity (amongst other factors) are not used as delineators for the derogation of difference.
(Very) short history of International Women’s Day
The first International Women’s Day was declared in 1909 in the United States and was observed on February 28. Since then the date and its acceptance have gone through several iterations, the most notable being:
1913-1914 International Women’s Day is set for March 8
1975 International Women’s Day celebrated for the first time by the United Nations.
2011 The world celebrates the centenary of International Women’s Day to commemorate the first IWD events held in 1911.
Since 1913 much progress has been made both practically and in the attitudinal shifts toward women’s participation in society – in most places across the world. These changes include more women in the boardroom, greater equality in legislative rights, and an increased critical mass of women's visibility as role models in every aspect of life.
However, we still fall far short of a world in which women have attained true equality. The facts are that women are still paid less than their male counterparts, women still are not present in equal numbers in business or politics and, globally, women's education, health and the violence against them is worse than that of men. We need to continue speaking up and speaking out if we are to achieve meaningful equality.
Statistics published in reports by the Department of Higher Education & Training show a trend - since at least 2011 - of marginally more women students than men students enrolling at South African universities. This trend is further reflected in graduation rates. However, despite women making up a greater proportion of graduates entering the workforce, women remain very poorly represented at management and senior management levels in business, industry and the professions.
The challenge for the legal profession is not only to attract women but to ensure that women are retained and sustained. Multiple factors contribute to the entrenchment of obstacles to women’s workplace advancement.
The South African judiciary appears to be doing relatively well with regard to gender representivity. The 2020/21 Annual Report of the Office of the Chief Justice published the following Race and Gender statistics which show that nominally the gap between representation of men and of women is closing.
At the University of Cape Town, enrolments in the Faculty of Law have been strongly influenced by its transformation strategies and targeted recruitment programmes undertaken to improve diversity across the institution. We are seeing positive results in representation amongst staff and students in the Faculty.
We have come a long way since 1909 when Sonya Schlesin (and then in 1912, Madeline Wookey) began fighting (unsuccessful until 1923) for the right to practice law - but there can be no argument that it is not even close to far enough. As important as the positive statistics are, they indicate spikes rather than an entrenched cohesive and unified environment in which women and men participate, strive and achieve - equally and equitably.
#BreakingTheBias in legal education, private practice and the judiciary should inform every aspect of South African practice and education in law as we move into the future.
Useful articles and information:
Patrick Bracher, 2020: The slow rise of women in the legal profession.
Rudo Chitapi, 2015: WOMEN IN THE LEGAL PROFESSION IN SOUTH AFRICA: TRAVERSING THE TENSIONS FROM THE BAR TO THE BENCH (submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for a UCT LLM in Public Law).