Women lawyering in a man’s world
As an intern attached to a court in Nigeria, I witnessed how female counsel were mandated by judges to indicate their marital status while announcing appearance as opposed to their male counterparts. The most painful part is the manner Judges ask the question and the derision (sure, from the male folks in courtroom). If the female counsel tries to evade the apparent embarrassment; the presiding Judge who often attempts to justify the practice would further ask ‘Miss or Mrs or would you prefer to be referred to as an Esquire?’ or ‘please let us know when you are available or off market, you never can tell there could be a prospective suitor …’.
Expectedly the male counterparts are thrilled and always show gratitude by prolonging such conversation in a manner that massages their ego. Little wonder, some men expect women’s education to end in kitchen and the infamous “the other room”.
Years have passed and I still wear the shoes, I must have grown a thick skin to stand such discriminatory environment. Every morning, I announce appearance in court, ensuring that I mutter the suffix Miss after mentioning my name thus: J. I. Ugwu ‘MISS’. This is to prevent drama or the court being torn in two like I witnessed in some situations where female lawyers fruitlessly attempted to go against such discriminatory and debasing legal tradition. Slowly, culture and sentimental attachments to titles have made way to confuse the legal system. One wonders the essence of a female lawyer announcing appearance in court with ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs’ titles or worst with ‘Esquire’, this is not applicable to the male counterparts as only ‘Mr.’ in exclusion of ‘Master’ is used, also male lawyers are not addressed with any feminine title as is the case when women are addressed as ‘Esquire’ (a male title).
Why can’t I for instance announce appearance as J. I. Ugwu with no title (esquire, miss or mrs)? If there is need to state such titles as Mr./Miss/Mrs, why don’t we use Mr. and Ms respectively as both are neutral terms for each gender, and usually don’t arouse any sense of stereotype. For instance, there are many lawyers who are advanced in their biological age but remain unmarried by choice or circumstance, it may appear demeaning when only the female counterparts in such instance are consequently and constantly reminded of their marital status by the use of Miss or Mrs in an open court.
A divorced female lawyer once left the courtroom feeling embarrassed after she literally made a public announcement of a failed marriage when she announced appearance. Immediately announcing her appearance, many colleagues passed notes across to her while others sent messages to her, asking ‘what happened?’
It’s ironic to think that the Court, which is a Temple of Justice evokes such Gender neutrality. Clichés like “there are no women at the bar” or “gentleman on skirts” or “esquire” are popular; but these are common phrases and remarks from the age long discrimination against women in legal practice. It denies the female gender the right to be female and be a lawyer, it rips them off being a woman ‘Womanity’ or ‘Femininity’ or ‘Womannes’. It suggests that a woman is incapable of being a lawyer, she has to first evolve into a man to be a lawyer. It goes further to say that being a man ‘Maness’ or ‘Mannity’ is a status to be attained before becoming a lawyer.
The issue of discrimination is not just at the Bar but also at the Bench. It doesn’t augur well when a female judge is referred to as ‘He or Sir’. If the profession recognized the two genders and prescribed different dress codes (collars, bibs and trousers are for men while collarets, skirts and dresses are for women), then it can accommodate more in terms of announcing appearance in court.
Gender discrimination is commonly observed in various professions and has also remained a barrier to a large number of women from taking up prestigious and high ranking jobs in the workplace; the legal profession is not an exception. Before 1913, women in Britain were incapable of becoming lawyers due to their gender as they were not regarded as a “person” under Solicitors Act 1843. Indeed, for centuries women were denied access to the legal system, except for a passive role as the objects of cases brought and decided by men, based on legislation formulated and passed by men often without the contribution of women. The legal profession, it seems was strictly for men, and everything around it was tailored exclusively for men; it wasn’t envisioned that someday females who were considered mere chattels, will be so educated, learned and become lawyers.
The career routes for women remain different in the sense that socially and culturally they have other responsibilities to be taken alongside their career aspirations. As a result, their efforts seem to be watered down or remain just a dream. It would seem as though women continue to run away from active law practice because of the peculiar challenges they face in practice or the fact that professional women still have the primary responsibility of both housekeeping and child bearing. Even though women now contribute more to the labour force; it is still the case that women routinely perform a higher portion of household chores and spend time looking after children and husbands; the ability to strike a balance between career and family life is quite a challenge. Most times, women are being pushed into the shadow of their husbands and so she needs to work extra hard than her male contemporaries to extricate herself from this shadow.
The case of Justice Jumbo Offor readily comes to mind as one out of many cases of hardship/struggle faced by women in their bid to become career women. She was dramatically denied a well-deserved position for no fault of hers, other than being married and consequently altering her indigenship. Though Justice Ifeoma Jumbo Offor was eventually sworn in after petitions and protests by Human Right activist and media emphasizing that section 42 of Nigerian Constitution frowns at discrimination on the basis of sex, religion, or geographical location. One must note that swearing in Justice Ifeoma later than her mates remains a scar in her career experience cum progression and a potential discouragement to aspiring women.
Today, women in positions of authority in the profession whether as law professors, practicing lawyers, senior advocates, or judges, are still comparatively small in numbers; and the issue of whether as women they have any real power remains a moot point. For example, how many women called to Nigerian Bar each year are in courtroom practice? How many of those in active practice are partners in a firm? How many women have become Attorney General of States and the Federation? How many are Senior Advocates of Nigeria? How many of the elected executives of Nigerian Bar Association at the state and national levels are women?
During my research, it was appalling to find that there has been only one female National chairman/president of the association since its inception, which dates back to 1900, the case of poor female representation equally affects the association at state level. Out of over 475 Senior Advocates, it is worrisome to state that the women amongst them are approximately 20. Is it truly a man’s world? Womanity have come of age in the world career and Nigerian Bar Association should not be left behind. There is call on rethinking the role of women in Nigeria for a sane, less corrupt and lawful society.
The law perhaps has the foundation of discrimination. This is because women’s active participation in law making over the centuries has been comparatively low. The absence of women as active participants in institutions of the law means that women’s perceptions, women’s consciousness and women’s ideas about their reality have played a very little part in the creation of the systems and ideas of the law or in the view of the world reflected in the artifacts of the legal system’s decided cases. Dorothy Smith poignantly described the effect of women’s exclusion from the institutions that create our culture, including the institutions of the law and of politics as being one where the perspectives, concerns, interests of only one sex, one class and one race are represented as general. She further opines that where only one sex, one class and one race are directly or actively involved in producing, developing and debating its ideas and framing its laws, “a one-sided standpoint comes to be seen as natural, obvious and general.
She goes on to remark that the consequences of women’s silence, absence and non-presence in the making of culture is that what is spoken or written and treated as universal is in fact partial, limited, located in a particular position and permeated by special interest and concerns. In law, as in rest of the culture, this has meant that “the means women have had available to them to think and make actionable their experience have been made for them and not by them”. Will the presence of women as actors in the legal system (law makers) change its one-sided representation of man’s reality as the only reality? At first a negative answer to the question seems a foregone conclusion especially by chauvinists.
Impressively, female law students and lawyers in the profession in this century have received the same professional education and training as men. The success at qualifying and working as professionals has depended on her ability to manipulate the concepts and the processes of the system to “think like a lawyer”. Sadly, ‘thinking like lawyers also means thinking like men’. This has sometimes even been explicitly (if not unwittingly) acknowledged by those responsible for our education; a male professor once bestowed on a female student what he considered to be the ultimate compliment for her. “You think more like a man than any woman I have ever taught”. Women often fall victims of such discriminatory compliments, not just at the level of law school, but throughout her professional career. A woman’s success in the profession still depends to a great extent on her excellence at using the male idioms. It is simply because the male idiom is still by and large the only one in which legal discourse is conducted. Such thoroughgoing socialization in the male norms of the profession has for years, made it unlikely that a woman could be highly successful in it by its term and also be an avowed feminist. Dorothy Smith again points out that women who succeed in a male-dominated system are those whose work cum style of work and conduct has met the approval of Judges who are mostly men. Her observation is accurate literally and figuratively of women lawyers because even women lawyers who believe in women’s equality can be caught up in the affirmation of the male vision of the world.
The current struggle in the fight against gender discrimination seeks to achieve a place in a man’s world for all; to develop a set of legislative reforms in order to place women in the same position as men and not to define the rights of women in relation to their special place in the social structure and in relation to the biological distinction between the two sexes and her vulnerability. Men usually have a wrong notion about women; some of them see women as not strong enough and tender hearted. This is perhaps why clients, including female clients, mostly prefer male lawyers to handle their cases. It however does not translate to mean that male lawyers are more brilliant, vocal and articulate than their female colleagues but exists on the premise of general perception of male superiority. More regrettable is the fact that some senior lawyers are often reluctant to recruit female lawyers or partner with them on the erroneous premise that they are less productive than their male counterparts. Big Firms prefer male lawyers who have not proven to be as brilliant as or more brilliant than their female counterparts. In the words of my learned senior Nkechi Obinwa, “if learning is a key to becoming a lawyer, to the female gender, it shows the male folk that having a womb did not take away their ability to learn. They discovered their potential, shattered the glass ceiling and earned their place in the practice of law.”
Despite these challenges, one takes solace in the dynamism of time. Just like every aspect of life, the legal profession is still evolving and I will not give up on it now or in the future for progress is sure. Gender diversity and gender sensitivity must be consciously and continuously promoted by Nigerian Bar Association in positions and appointments, to give women the needed support, recognition and placement in leadership positions in different areas of legal practice. Women should be allowed to play prominent roles in the legal profession and every existing stereotypical ideology in the ethics of the profession should be erased to forge a gender balanced legal profession.
Ugwu is a legal practitioner.