Beyond the glass ceiling

Responses by Tshepo Shabangu, Partner & Chairperson of Spoor & Fisher

How was it at the beginning when you started your career in a more male dominated industry?

I wasn’t too aware about IP law at University and during those days black people mostly practised criminal or personal injury law. I got to serve my articles at an IP firm through happenstance but today it has afforded me the opportunity to practise law internationally as well as guide other black professionals in the sector.

At the beginning of my professional career, I was faced with many challenges which stemmed from racial and gender bias. I recall there were instances when I was second guessed not because of my ability, but because of what I looked like. I was fortunate though to have an amazing principal and worked hard to earn his trust and confidence. He became my greatest ally in the progression of my career.

What was your journey to where you are now?

I had to master the craft and start my training towards being a trade mark attorney. This entailed long hours working at the feet of seasoned trade mark lawyers who exposed me to high worth work and sponsored me in my career. I got into the habit of soliciting feedback about my progression, requesting difficult work assignments, building professional networks and a reputation of being responsive and effective.

After being admitted as an attorney and a notary public, I qualified as a trade mark practitioner, being one of two African women to first and simultaneously qualify as such in the history of Intellectual Property (IP) law in South Africa.

As someone who has been in the sector for over two decades, any observations that are specific to law firms?

I have seen a gradual increase in the number of women entering the profession over the years though the percentage of women in leadership positions remains relatively lower. Women are overall uncomfortable with claiming credit for the work they have done, and I for one do not self-advocate.

As a small contribution towards the imbalance in the profession, I started the “Lift as You Climb” mentorship programme when I was the President of the South African Institute of Intellectual Property Law (“SAIIPL”), and I still run this programme independently. Paying it forward and enabling others to forge ahead in their careers has been one of the greatest highlights of my career and has given me the sense that I, like my father, am a community builder.

What are some patterns you’ve noticed over the years about women at work, and things they could be doing better to advance their careers?

Like most things in life, you have to reach out and ask for the opportunities, before they can be given. Women must be assertive, learn to negotiate and ask for what they need. Biases must not be a deterrent for women willing to contribute meaningfully in their various firms.

Personally, getting involved in the activities of the bar associations globally and industry bodies were a huge help in growing my practice and contacts. Language has been another big plus and I found that my command of the German language and involvement in the German and Austrian Chambers of Commerce helped to solidify relationships with German speaking clients.

In your opinion, which barriers cripple career development for women?

Statistics show that whilst the legal profession is known to fight for gender equality and diversity in employment, it is not doing as well as it should in these areas. There is an unconscious bias against women because of their family responsibilities, and it is said that they lack the necessary commitment. A webinar by Women in IP law Committee of the American Intellectual Property Law Association (AIPLA) points to the working mother stigma, where the women were made to feel less valuable and put on the so-called “mommy track” instead of the “partnership track”.

Black women often report that they are subjected to a double whammy of race and gender bias. A study conducted by the Law Society of South Africa shows that less women progress to partnership despite the swelling numbers of qualified women joining the profession. This scenario is equally applicable, but to a lesser extent in the relatively smaller IP profession.

Are you seeing law firms waking up to the new reality? How are we doing in terms of getting men to engage in the gender debate?

In my experience, even though males are still the majority owners of law firms, I have seen in the IP fraternity that there is an influx of women attorneys who are equity partners or on the path to equity partnership. Sharon Cook, the former managing partner at Henry Davis York in Australia wrote in an article that there were few managing partners at law firms in Australia, and that the women who progressed and ultimately made partners have done so in spite of the culture, not because of it.

At Spoor & Fisher, we have women on the Executive Committee and this bodes well for diversity. Also there is a dispensation at Spoor & Fisher for both male and female colleagues to work reduced hours should they so wish, without fear of being prejudiced. A lot needs to be done through to eradicate the stigmatisation of flexibility, that you cannot really be serious about your career if you want to work part-time or flexible hours.

Internationally clients are setting gender and diversity targets for their law firms, is South Africa there yet?

A lot of clients have targets to achieve gender diversity in their companies and to use law firms with a diverse workforce. This opens up opportunities for women lawyers to work on these client’s accounts. However, one should guard against tokenism and ensure that they only work within their area of expertise for which they are qualified.

This article was first published in City Press.

Date published: 25 July 2018
Author: Tshepo Shabangu