Vance Center Launches South Africa Project

December 2021

The Vance Center and the South African Legal Fellows Network (SALFN), in partnership with the U.S. Mission to South Africa, convened a virtual meeting to launch a new project addressing the gender gap in legal leadership positions in South Africa. The discussions highlighted the opportunity to convene South-South dialogues on women’s leadership in the legal profession and shape leadership narratives for female lawyers of color in South Africa.

The under-representation of women in leadership positions exists across many countries and sectors, and the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the gap. South Africa has seen an increase in women participating in decision-making roles since the advent of democracy; however, there is still a disproportion of men in leadership positions in the legal profession and a particular dearth of women of color.

The Vance Center and SALFN initiated the two-year project Advancing Women in the Workplace (AWW) to address this gender gap in legal leadership positions in South Africa. The project will include a mentorship program, gender diversity and inclusion survey, and other activities, relying on models that the Vance Center has pursued for many years in the Women in the Profession (WIP) program in Latin America.

In launching the AWW project, project advisory board members welcomed participants to the virtual event. They included Inosi Nyatta, chair of the Vance Center Committee’s Africa sub-Committee and partner at Sullivan & Cromwell, and Nontu Made, chairperson of the South African Legal Fellows Network. Lorraine McGowen, New York City Bar Association Vice President, Orrick partner, and Vance Center Committee Africa Sub-Committee member, presented opening remarks along with Heather Merrit, Deputy Chief of the U.S. Mission to South Africa.

Justice Yvonne Mokgoro, the first Black female judge of South Africa’s Constitutional Court, delivered the keynote address. She focused on the value that women’s role adds to the legal profession and discussed the need to address gender equality from a multidimensional perspective. She shared her personal experiences to highlight challenges women face at work and stressed the need to collaborate with men to eliminate gender inequalities. She recounted the role of South Africa’s Association of Women Judges in promoting gender equality and the need for their support to the AWW project. She concluded her remarks by emphasizing the value of women in leadership positions in South Africa and how mentorship could support young women of color.

Ms. Tamara Mathebula, chairperson of South Africa’s Commission for Gender Equality and Chairperson of the AWW Advisory Board, in responding to Justice Mokgoro’s keynote address, provided an overview of South Africa’s role in the Southern African Development Community and efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. She cited other national laws on promoting equality, prevention of discrimination, and employment equity and expressed dismay at the slow pace of transformation. She welcomed the research survey that the AWW project includes and cited the Gender Commission’s 2016 report on gender transformation in the judiciary and legal sector, which showed the dominance of men in both. She noted that mentorship was one of the recommendations from the report and committed the Commission’s institutional expertise and support for both the AWW project mentorship program and survey.

Other members of the AWW advisory board and the International Steering Committee of the Vance Center’s WIP program, Antonia Stolper and Zelma Acosta-Rubio, shared information on the start of the WIP program in Latin America and the framework for the mentorship program in Peru. The AWW project will rely on the experience and expertise of the WIP program and some of the WIP chapters in Latin America. Of the 19 WIP chapters in 18 Latin American countries, nine chapters have set up mentorship programs, and several others are establishing them. The Vance Center in 2021 initiated South-to-South exchanges with WIP chapters and partners in South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Namibia, and Ethiopia.

Adaobi Egboka, the Vance Center’s Africa Program Manager, introduced the objectives and main activities for the two–year AWW project and invited partnership with the legal profession in South Africa. She moderated a panel discussion with panelists Ms. Siviwe Anthony, General Manager Commercial Legal of MTN Group and member of the SALFN; Mbalenhle Lembede, Senior Legal Counsel of the Airports Company South Africa; and Ms. Tammy Beira, Director and Talent Partner of Bowmans, who addressed the role of the private and public sectors in promoting gender equality and mentorship. Panelists confirmed that the legal landscape remains patriarchal and stereotypes still prevail, leading to misogynist behavior and unconscious biases. They agreed that, although there are no substantial barriers in university admissions, female lawyers in practice are limited by balancing work and family and the lack of mentorship in the private and public sectors. They shared examples of initiatives to support women at work, including creating a culture of accountability for inappropriate behavior and reverse mentoring for male colleagues by female juniors to eliminate unconscious bias.