Female Emirati lawyers still fighting old stereotypes

Life can be hard for women in any workplace, but for female legal professionals in the UAE the challenges can be particularly great.

Women lawyers, especially in the UAE, face a lot of challenges. They must juggle families and careers, cope with hiring and pay practices that can put them at a disadvantage, and manage with hardly any role models.

On the other hand, some people particularly seek out women lawyers, for a variety of reasons. They may believe women listen more attentively, work harder, are more sympathetic, are more likely to resolve matters without litigation or may have a better effect on judges.

But those impressions, based on stereotypes, are not necessarily always true. Male attorneys can be just as hard working and sympathetic as female ones, and females can be just as aggressive as males.

And to the extent that women really are better "listeners" and speak less than men, or have more empathy and less ego, these characteristics can be very positive in any career - except in the practice of law. In law, "female traits" can be seriously detrimental.

The fact that most UAE women lawyers prefer to work for male lawyers, rather than set up their own practices, shows that many of them are reluctant to promote their own accomplishments; this is a typical female trait that works against any woman who displays it.

The other trait that society deems desirable for women in general is to be soft-spoken and gentle. But when women lawyers express themselves in soft "feminine" tones, their comments do not have the same effect. Conversely, when women lawyers speak assertively, they find themselves written off as unattractively aggressive.

For a woman lawyer, even having a masculine-sounding name - Nour or Rifaat or Salam, for example - seems to be advantageous.

And then there's this question: Do attractive women make better lawyers? This was the subject of a study undertaken by American researchers in 1988 on the appearance and productivity of lawyers.

The researchers found that women litigators tended to be the most attractive-looking attorneys, while women regulatory lawyers were the least. They also found that while good looks helped men become partners, the opposite was found to be true for women.

Personal style can also be a "make or break" factor for a female lawyer, as overall presentation does count. In the UAE, male lawyers can look professional with very little effort, but female ones must be vigilant against an abaya that is too casual or flashy - which translates as "unprofessional". Ill-fitting shoes are unacceptable, too.

Make-up is another issue when in court. Young women lawyers wear make-up unwisely at times, leaving them open to criticism and even mockery.

We live in a world, it seems, where women lawyers who refuse to indulge gender stereotypes are labelled as aggressive, while those who play to gender norms can be taken advantage of, and may be considered weak.

Apparently, fear of failure is a motivating factor for women lawyers, and the disparity in how the genders are treated in both the study and the practice of law probably exacerbates that fear.

Women, particularly mothers, also experience another unique and complex set of challenges working in the law.

They face serious challenges in building a practice and succeeding at the highest levels in the legal profession while simultaneously finding the time and energy to honour their personal and family responsibilities.

Anecdotal evidence seems to back up the sense that it is more difficult for women than for men to strive in the profession in the UAE:

According to my own records, 40 to 50 per cent of female lawyers I have known and worked with in the last three years have left the profession to become public prosecutors, government employees or housewives.

Of those who remained, only 10 per cent have gone on to become partners in major law firms, or to set up their own.

And only 1 per cent have become judges.

In an essay I wrote, UAE Women Lawyers - To Be Or Not To Be (published in 2009 in a book called Global Emirates, an Anthology of Tolerance and Enterprise), I called on female law graduates to enter private practice.

I urged them not to shy away from the courtroom, the real arena for debate and justice. I know I meant well then, but working closely with fresh female law graduates, I have to say it is not easy for many of them to do so.

Becoming a lawyer seems to be very much against the natural traits of femininity and is challenging for any woman from any culture or background, and harder still for an Emirati woman.

Against all odds, Saudi women have finally become family law practitioners. Women lawyers in other Gulf states are also encouraged, supported and motivated by their governments. Lebanon's bar association appointed its first woman head last year. And female lawyers in Egypt and Tunisia have been engaged in legal practice for many years.

The UAE Ministry of Justice and the Dubai Ruler's Court legal department should focus on developing the careers of UAE women lawyers.

Young female graduates should be provided with the necessary programmes, learning opportunities and job support.

As newly groomed professionals, young women lawyers need all the support they can get to achieve their goals.


Diana Hamade is an Emirati lawyer and founder of International Advocate Legal Services in Dubai

Published: August 7, 2011 04:00 AM


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