Authenticity in the legal field: A woman’s unfiltered views

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The inequalities that women in the workplace face on a daily basis are varied: They are gendered in nature and often racially-based – and this makes it increasingly difficult for women to remain authentic.

This is the lived experience of Nomsa Sihlangu*, a prosecutor plying her trade in the legal sector.

’At times I am able to be authentic, while other times I am unable to,’’ states Nomsa from the outset.

For the astute prosecutor, authenticity is primarily about being original, or being true to one’s self. While she values integrity, honesty and helpfulness above all else, she has always almost found that being authentic in the workplace is a difficult act to juggle for numerous reasons.

Her first concern is the rampant corruption in the legal sector, which she believes presents the biggest hurdle in maintaining her own integrity.  

The other concern that Nomsa surfaces which we believe is a challenge experienced by many women is just the mere difficulty of showing her emotions at work, particularly in court. This is a grave concern as emotions are at the heart of who we are. When we suppress these, we deny ourselves a core of who we are.

’Many times when I am in court, I struggle to show my emotions. This is because displaying emotions in the courtroom can be interpreted by others as being biased and prejudiced. As a result, I find it easier to be authentic when I am outside the courtroom, interacting with people. At such times I am able to give advice and counsel to the witnesses and talk to my clients freely,’’ she says.

The issues of gender and race discrimination are also hugely at play in the legal sector, with Nomsa expressing much disappointment at the lack of real transformation in a South African legal field that has remained mainly white and male dominated.

’Working in such a sector does not make my job any easier as a black woman. I always find that I need to work harder to prove myself. Every decision I make as a black female prosecutor is often scrutinized, especially by my colleagues who are predominately white. This always leaves me with feelings of inferiority - especially when it comes from those of the opposite race. What is sad is that I am not able to do the same to their work even if I have views that could contribute positively to others,’’ she laments.

Nomsa also points out that in the past 15 years she has been the only black female prosecutor employed by her organisation. Similarly, she has often witnessed differential treatment between white female and black prosecutors with a bias towards whites. White employees, she says, are the ones who most often obtain ‘’merits’’ for their work.

’All these things make me feel alienated and limit my growth and potential,’’ she adds.

lack of recognition for women within her organisation is another stumbling block, according to Nomsa. She strongly believes this lack of recognition of black women makes it difficult for women to assume leadership roles – and to be successful within those roles.

’My immediate supervisor is a woman and because she is surrounded by males, she always has to be strict and more assertive. Fighting lawyers who consistently undermine her decisions has become part of her job,’’ she explains.

The disregard of women as shown in Nomsa’s organisation is also evident in blatant attempts to exclude women from important decision-making processes.

’I was once transferred without being consulted. I was completely removed from the decision-making process on a decision that directly concerned me,’’ she recalls.

Nomsa acknowledges that working in an environment that, in many ways, is toxic and unhealthy, makes it increasingly difficult for her to be authentic.

’But what keeps me going is my faith. It helps me to be assertive and to understand what my role is in the workplace,’’ she declares with admirable conviction.

*Not her real name

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