Women in Law and leadership: Summary of the IAWL panafrican study

The legal profession in Africa is slowly but surely becoming more inclusive across gender lines. Despite the overall progress, there are still barriers to entry that prevent women from accessing leadership positions in the profession which has deterred young women from pursuing careers in traditional practice.

In this post, we will discuss the challenges that women face in the legal profession and provide recommendations to help shatter the glass ceilings based on a research study conducted in four African countries (Nigeria, Senegal, Kenya, and South Africa) by the Institute for African Women in Law (IAWL).

General Observations

Overall, African women in the various legal institutions - the bar, the judiciary and academia - face opaque hiring and promotion practices, unequal pay, sexual harassment, gender stereotypes and unconscious bias. Within these structures, women who enter the legal profession can expect to contend with systemic patriarchy, discriminatory gender norms, and negative perceptions of women leaders. Women often have to have to contend with their own challenges such as those linked to their age, gender, marital status, religion, and ethnicity and how these factors influence them and their peers in their life choices.

These factors explain women's late entry into the profession, as well as the obstacles they face on a daily basis, and the challenges to leadership and promotion. When we look into the specific areas of practice, some more complexities begin to emerge.

The Legal Academy (Academia)

The study found that women who want to pursue a career in academia must demonstrate a keen ability to engage with the space and negotiate beneficial agreements, contracts, or grants (due to frequent false neutrality within application processes) while continuing in their personal lives to address care giving demands and expectations.

They have the responsibility of building a research profile, the need to produce scholarship, the challenge of teachers biases, the quest for mentors, the compulsion to assimilate (to a historically patriarchal culture and coding), perform and/or do extra labour to be noticed, all while navigating the intersection of womanhood and femininity with blackness and ethnicity creating a myriad of struggles that grow increasingly complex with each individual.

This makes maintaining a study/life balance very difficult and leads to a strange understanding of what it must mean to be a woman in African legal academia. The harmful adage that “women can do it all” comes to mind. In a structure that holds negative stereotypes about women’s leadership abilities and persisting gender stereotypes, bias and (of course) sexual harassment, women continue to be side-lined from promotion to leadership roles. In academia leadership takes the form of lecturing and research capacities, as well as administrative position as heads of departments or deans of faculties. Thus, there is a normalisation of the absence of women in a cohort of graduates or a class. 
The social context also has a significant influence. Women's education is taken less seriously in the family in some communities. This makes access to higher education materially impossible for women facing this problem.

There are other social constraints such as life in marriage, which constitutes a real obstacle to the advancement of women and, by extension, their integration into certain sectors, such as the university. - An academic in Senegal.


Recommendations to support and promote women in academia include:

  • creating transparent and equal opportunities for hiring and promotion,
  • conducting regular promotion policy reviews,
  • enforcing disciplinary measures against gender-based harassment,
  • providing institutional support for early-career academics,
  • enforcing gender equality regulations and legislation,
  • addressing sociocultural gender biases and discrimination,
  • investing in early leadership development and skills training,
  • creating inclusive and supportive work environments that promote work-life balance and supporting women and staff with family responsibilities and (when present) disabilities.
  • women can also overcome research barriers with collaborative practices and by seeking internal and external opportunities to push institutional limitations.

The Bar (Attorneys and Advocates)

The legal profession presents several challenges for women, including a lack of support for families and non-inclusive working conditions in law firms. Young women lawyers do not have mentorship and organisational support, leading to low salaries and a gender pay gap. Promotion policies can be opaque, resulting in stagnation in women’s ascension to leadership positions. Gender-based discrimination, sexual harassment, intimidation, and abuse are also prevalent. Unspoken gender biases and stereotypes further exacerbate women's underrepresentation and lack of representation in national bar associations and law society leadership.

Additionally, patriarchal cultures in workplace practices and procedures have a significant impact on women's experiences. The "old boy club" phenomenon further contributes to the "lonely woman at the top" for those who achieve leadership positions. Negative perceptions of competence and clients' demands for specifically men as lawyers also impact women's success. Balancing family demands, caregiving, and the burden of childcare can be a significant obstacle for women in the legal profession. Self-imposed barriers, limited capacity, and intersectional existence further exacerbate these challenges, with women often facing the burden of over-performing to prove their competence.

“It took a long time for the courts, clients, and the public to accept that I am a lawyer. This is because people were not used to having women in the profession. I remember attending a magistrate’s court to represent a client. I took a seat on one of the benches reserved for advocates. The magistrates looked at me and told me that bench was reserved for counsels. He did not think I was one. In the office, when clients were referred to me, they would tell me that they came to see a lawyer. In their minds, I could not possibly be a lawyer. Even [men] colleagues in courts keep completing sentences for women like they would forget what to say. This goes on all the time. It does not matter how smart a lawyer you are. This happens to women advocates all the time.” – Pioneer Women Lawyer, Kenya **


To support women within the legal profession, it is paramount to create mentoring opportunities and support networks.

  • The work environment must be conducive to women's needs, with gender audits conducted to understand these needs and to develop policies that protect women lawyers from gender-based discrimination.
  • Organisational support and an unbiased work environment should be enforced to address institutionalised sociocultural gender stereotypes and negative perceptions about women's leadership capacities.
  • Institutionalised mentoring opportunities should also be developed, and public awareness and sensitisation of clients and the public on women's leadership capabilities should be provided.
  • To ensure gender equity, it is necessary to turn gatekeepers into allies and to gather funding and data to support evidence-based interventions.
  • Finally, building and drawing from supportive family structures and understanding women's specific and intersectional needs will cultivate gender equity in the legal profession.

The Bench (Judges)

Women on the bench face numerous problems including systemic barriers in selection processes, sexist practices, gender bias in promotion criteria, and patriarchal attitudes both on and off the bench. They also encounter persistent sociocultural gender-based discrimination, stereotypes, and biases, with little support and mentorship available for women judges.

There is a lack of work-life balance and support for addressing the intersectional needs of women, including geographic location, ethnicity, disability, motherhood, and religion. Moreover, the judicial hierarchies negatively impact mentorship and social networks within the judiciary. The quest for perfection and burnout due to masculinised caseload management also pose challenges. Women must identify their personal leadership traits and areas that need improvement, as well as overcome self-imposed barriers and impostor syndrome.

Additionally, there is a risk of a backlash against women for rising up the ranks. Debilitating patriarchal cultures in workplace practices and procedures and the myths and perceptions of women’s capabilities as judges further compound the issues.

The study showed that women on the bench had personal agency for entry but relied on civil society and women's organizations for support. The rules for promotion were opaque, and leadership opportunities were limited and uneven. The study found that there was stagnation in lower courts, and only the constitution allowed women to advance. The gatekeepers (often men) also contributed to the difficulties women faced in the bench.


To address the challenges facing women on the bench, the report recommends first:

  • The necessity to enforce constitutional and legal frameworks that advance women's right to public office.
  • Policies and audits should be revised to reflect the uncentering of men's perspectives within institutions, thus encouraging and cultivating men’s allyship, and continuous training on bias and aggression.
  • Creating and sustaining judicial mentoring networks can help provide support and guidance for young women judges.
  • Opportunities for targeted skills development, training, and support should also be sought.
  • Programs to increase collegiality among women judges across court ranks should be provided.
  • Professional development opportunities and training sessions can also be used to address women judges' confidence, while women's associations can support those seeking leadership positions.


The legal profession is undergoing a feminisation in people and culture, but it is slow and arduous. The studies found that the legal profession in Africa has significant barriers to entry and advancement for women with institutional, structural, and individual factors all contributing to the challenges. Policies should be reviewed, and audits organised, hiring, promotion and paying practices should be revised, and unconscious bias and micro-aggression training should be provided. The cultivation of allyship, emphasising both men and women’s role in patriarchy, and the building and strengthening of multinational networks and women's leadership organisations should also be prioritised.

Finally, investment in education, capacity-building programs, mentoring programs, boot camps, sponsorship and leadership, research for evidence and baseline studies, and data gathering should be made.

These studies focused on the institutional, structural, and individual factors that explain women’s difficulties in the three main sectors of the legal profession in four African countries.

It is important to note, the use of feminist non-essentialism and intersectional feminism frameworks within the study to recognise gender fluidity and non-binary identities. “Women” was used as an inclusive term covering a wide range of identities and expressions. The studies used both qualitative and quantitative methods in its data gathering, with anonymity and informed consent as key features to protect the identity of the participants.

You can read the high-level summary used as a main source for this article in here:

Molefe Dlepu Incorporated is proud to be a part of a large network (both national and international) of law firms that contribute to improve the status of women in law. With regular intake of recent graduates as interns, candidate attorneys and attorneys, strong woman leadership, a work environment full of successful women, and ongoing participation in several networks of women in law.

To support our work, contact us, hire us, or simply share and like the following blog post.

This publication is provided for your convenience and does not constitue legal advice. This publication is protected by copyright © Molefe Dlepu