As the world marks the International Women’s Day 2019 with the campaign theme, “Balance for Better”, Mrs. Soibi Ovia, a partner at Duale, Ovia and Alex-Adedipe (DOA), a bespoke full-service commercial firm weighs the challenges and milestones for women in legal practice alongside the law firm’s profound contribution to gender equality in the workspace. Yinka Olatunbosun writes.
Perhaps, the ultimate basis for conversation with Mrs. Soibi Ovia came when she declared: “The ratio of men to women at our law firm is in equal proportion. We have slightly more women working in our legal team than we do men, however we have slightly more men working in our administrative and support team than we do women.”
That sounds fair but certainly, it is quite atypical to find a higher percentage of lawyers in a busy commercial firm to be women. Arguably, a lot of women struggle with family dynamics that may impede active legal practice. With the harsh working conditions at most commercial law firms, late closing hours are sacrosanct. In a bid to stay aboard legal practice, female lawyers often work independently or engage in civil service where the working hours remain ‘civil’.
With the hope of unearthing the age long issues of gender disparity and stereotypes, Ovia was sought after during a busy week coloured by the global campaign for gender balance. She began with her view on what International Women’s Day means.
She said, “The International Women’s Day is significant to me as a day dedicated to celebrating women as per their achievements and successes without focusing on divisions in nationality, ethnicity, color, language, culture, class, economic or political standing in life.
“The International Women’s Day beyond being a celebration of the contribution of women to humanity and the admiration of the struggles of womankind, reflects a hope in the possible unity of humanity. It inspires thoughts of hope in the desire for a world where humans do not distinguish discriminate and divide themselves based on gender, color, nationality, ethnicity, social, economic or political standing.”
Called to the bar at about a decade ago, she had made significant progress being a partner at a leading commercial law firm even with the task of being a committed mother of three.
Many women lawyers have completely different stories to share, pursuing other interests and dreaming of wearing the wig and gown again, someday. But the years wore on and the dream turns elusive.
For Ovia, DOA’s flexible working hours for pregnant and nursing mothers has made the firm a trailblazer in gender inclusivity.
“Our firm always feels privileged to celebrate our women talent and on the International Women’s Day as we show our unwavering commitment to a more inclusive work environment where our people are not divided based on tribe, race, colour, gender or class, but where we exist as a team of persons working towards a common goal,” she said.
What the firm is doing may seem inconsequential to someone who is oblivious of the history of gender stereotypes in legal practice in Nigeria. A case in point is the number of women who joined the rank of senior advocates of Nigeria. Purely reflective of a male-dominated profession, it took ten years for the first woman, Chief Folake Solanke SAN, CON to be conferred with the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria. That was a milestone of the period. The gender margin is still very wide every time a new list of lawyers is released by the Legal Practitioners’ Privileges Committee.
In 2012, Nigeria got her first female Chief Justice of Nigeria, Aloma Mariam Mukhtar who has since retired from the bench. With no female justice in sight for the role, it begs the question of gender disparity which Ovia evaluated from a factional perspective.
“The mandatory retirement age for Justices means there are a number of Justices who would never become CJN including a number of female Justices. No doubt, if we have more female Justices elevated to the Supreme Court, we may see our chances of having another Female CJN emerge in the near future,” she observed.
Another area that women lawyers are hardly seen is election petition trials. As aggrieved political candidates head to the court for legal redress, it is most unlikely that female lawyers would be sought after in the heat of accusations and counter-accusations of electoral malpractices to represent clients in court-with the prospect of securing victory over the opponent with a favourable judgment.
Ovia explained that the prevalence of male participation in election petition matters may be approached from a deductive point of view rather than a stereotype point of reasoning.
“Election petition is heavily hinged on politics which is a field with low female participation and active involvement. Dispute resolution practice, particularly litigation in Nigeria is perceived as arduous and not female-friendly, thus the female to male practice index is lower when placed side by side other practice area,” she observed.
In addition, she pointed out that the perceived stereotypes in the legal profession is not confined to the profession itself.
“Every industry or profession has its stereotypes, the legal profession is not an exception. For instance, there is a predominant assumption that litigation lawyers are mostly men and where female litigators exist, they deal mostly with non- contentious matters. There is also the notion that a company secretary should be a woman. There have been various arguments proposed to defend these stereotypes, however it should not be that a person, regardless of their skillset, and experience becomes more suited for a role only based on his or her gender,” she affirmed.
Though maintaining gender balance in recruitment and promotion process is vital, Ovia argued strongly that DOA has been very transparent in building a team that reflects balance.
“At Duale, Ovia & Alex-Adedipe, we ensure that we create a balanced and equal opportunity for our people and an environment conducive for every member of our team. The firm adopts a transparent performance based system for recruitment, promotions and professional development by ensuring the key performance indicators and assessment points are available to every team member undergoing the process,” she pointed out.
In the area of legal scholarship, Ovia noted that there has been an increase in the number of female legal authors citing copious examples.
“In the past, the legal literature was largely male. This has seen some radical change over the years as the number female legal authors are rapidly increasing. Professor M.T Okorodudu-Fubara’s Law of Environmental Protection, Mrs. Funke Adekoya SAN’s multiple publications the Transnational Dispute Management Journal and Joy Ezeilo’s Law, Reproductive Health and Human Rights reflect the change in the legal literature space formerly entirely male,” she said.
International Federation of Women Lawyers with the acronym FIDA drawn from its Spanish rendition is one of the international non-governmental organisations in the world had been proactive in championing the rights of women as well as children. Ovia believes that have more replications of this organisation spell good tidings for women. She said: “Associations with similar goals targeted at female lawyers will contribute immensely to promoting and strengthening the rights and interest of female lawyers.”
Sexual harassment is a commonplace practice in the work environment, sometimes accounting for why some women have missed out on promotions or other opportunities. Ovia has just one prescription for any woman living with this emotional burden.
“Speak up! This has also been my ethos on the issues of sexual harassment and bias at the workplace generally. I believe there is no justice in silence and that the more women voice out about their experiences in the workplace and outside of the workplace, the more they lend a credible voice to the women all over the world to stand up and speak up against all forms of harassment, bias and discrimination,” she said.
The role of female-to-female mentoring towards advancing their careers of women lawyers was broached with Ovia who agreed that it is incredibly important for female lawyers who have risen through the ranks- against all odds and negative stereotypes- to the pinnacle of their careers to constantly strive to empower the younger and upcoming generations through mentoring sessions.
“These programmes are so vital to the growth and upliftment of the younger generation as it provides a blue print to avoid past mistakes and shows a roadmap to achieve success in any chosen career,” she added.
Ovia places emphasis on competence as key to securing gender balance in various fields. While the political terrain may seem daunting for women, she affirms that DOA will not create negative stereotypes in legal practice with its culture of gender equality.
“At DOA, we make it a duty to initiate ALL lawyers in any area of practice as their competence allows for. We do not see any practice area as too volatile for any gender and encourage all our lawyers to tackle issues arising in any given situation they encounter,” she declared.