On being a woman advocate in Harare: deep voices, romantic passes – and ugly shoes

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Here’s a piece I recently wrote for the Advocate magazine published by the General Council of the Bar of South Africa.

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Eleanor M. Fox, Walter J. Derenberg Professor of Trade Regulation at New York University, once said that women, people of colour and others historically denied a place on the upward track of the traditional hierarchies in the practice of law, have today, more than ever, the chance to succeed on merit. In January 2012, after a year of practice in the Prosecution Division of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, and another year pursuing a Master of Laws degree at the University of Cambridge, I decided to become an advocate at the Harare Bar. Inspired by several women silks I had encountered as a Pegasus Scholar at The Honourable Society of the Inner Temple in London, including Eleanor Grey QC and Alison Foster QC, I believed the courtroom was where my career was destined.

Particularly, I looked forward to litigating in Zimbabwe.

The last time I had done so continuously was in 2009, when, as an attorney, I defended commercial farmers who faced criminal prosecution for remaining on their farms.  Economically and politically, the situation in Zimbabwe had improved.  The renewed stability in the economy once again made the practice of law a worthwhile endeavour.

Against this background, I offer these musings upon being a woman at the Harare Bar.

At the outset, it must be highlighted that, whether one is a man or a woman, being an advocate is a tough job.  The expectations are high, the deadlines, brutal, the issues, complex and the hours, long. The additional domestic demands placed on women in African societies make being an advocate an unlikely option for the archetypal Zimbabwean woman lawyer.  The absence of any women advocates at the set I joined, Advocates’ Chambers, ought to have been the first sign that the system was not designed for the “non-male advocate.”

I wish I could have described the non-male advocate as “the lady advocate.”  However, doing so would conjure up the idea held by many female lawyers throughout the world that to be called a lady lawyer is patronising and has sexist undertones due to the association of the expected “ladylike” behaviour.

On that score, it became very clear to me in my early days at chambers that there was little room for “ladylike” behaviour in any classical sense. Amid sexual banter and crude jokes, I soon became “one of the boys.”  I joined in the laughter at teatime and often myself sounded like a construction worker. I was torn between, on the one hand, wanting to avoid being judged too weak or too fragile to last in the system and, on the other, abandoning my femininity. Therefore, as I strove to make my gender a non-issue in my interaction with fellow members of the Bar, paradoxically perhaps, I also became more bent upon asserting my femininity.  Purposely, I wore only skirt suits. My hair and nails were always a big deal.  My room in chambers was full of flowers and pretty scents.  One member of chambers remarked that my room was “girly.”  Soon, it became accepted that the non-male advocate was part of the fabric of the institution.

Yet, the newspapers often still refer to me as “he” when reporting upon cases I have argued.

When I take their calls, attorneys tend to mistake me for “Advocate Mahere’s secretary,” expecting as they do to hear another man on the other end of the line.

Generally, women judges tend to receive me differently from how they would receive a male counterpart.  It is, I find, a mix of veiled hostility and surprise – the irony! Equally, a silk I appeared against once remarked how he “has a problem with girls” in a conversation I have since put down to strategic pre-court sparring designed to take my eye off the ball. Some have opined that I get briefed because I am “a pretty face.”  This is made worse by the many romantic and even sexual advances and passes made by instructing practitioners and clients alike.

Sigh.

Suffice it to state that it may be easier for a fish to ride a bicycle than it is to achieve an appropriate balance between being firm and, at the same time, being polite in response to these obstacles without coming across as “angry.”

This applies particularly to the courtroom setting.  Experience has taught me that anger helps a man command a courtroom.  Obviously, a non-male advocate achieves the opposite effect.  While the former comes off as assertive, the latter is often remembered as emotionally erratic. An incrementally more intense hearing can do the woman advocate no favours unless she masters the art of controlling the pitch of her voice.  She may do well to ensure that her voice achieves the lower register, something the male advocate usually does not need to strive for. But the double bind is that, to fit the stereotypical image of an advocate means being argumentative and aggressive.  If a woman chooses to reject this image and to adopt a less combative form of engagement, she runs the risk of being labelled too feminine, leading litigants to doubt her fibre as a lawyer.

It is almost as though the non-male advocate cannot win: damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t.

Moreover, while my male colleagues are assumed to be serious and to be embarking upon a lifelong career, I am often asked when I will quit or take a break to start a family.  There is, therefore, a constant need to reflect that I am a committed and competent professional and to convince each judge and opponent that I mean business and that I am in the profession to stay.

Top-quality, hard work will usually achieve this – as will working longer and harder on tough briefs.

From the foregoing, it is probably little wonder that there is yet to be a female silk at the Bar in Zimbabwe. While about 50% of all law graduates are female, the attrition rate amongst women lawyers is extremely high.  The unfortunate further result is that few join the Bar. There has to be something wrong with the system if I am the only non-male advocate practising in Harare.  I look forward to the day when this statistic will change.

This will be a long time coming, however, because the sad truth is that the safest way to success as an advocate is the emulation of males, even to the extent of learning to speak lower and louder, wearing one’s hair short and donning a dark, conservative suit, with ugly shoes.

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6 thoughts on “On being a woman advocate in Harare: deep voices, romantic passes – and ugly shoes

  1. I distinctly remember you wearing a skirt suit during your debate at the Cambridge Union…although I think your voice did rise once or twice 🙂

    Having ladies around at work makes it far more interesting, dynamic and appealing. Remind your male colleagues of this basic fact of life.

    Like

  2. This is a such a good piece and a great blog! So glad I’ve discovered it. I graduated from law school last week and I really appreciate your insights. Question, have you read Sheryl Sandberg’s book ‘Lean In’?

    Like

  3. This is an enlightening article delivered with an interesting captivating light tone, so truthful, but still unemotional. looking forward to reading more

    Like

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