Where are the women managing partners? A gender scorecard on women in leadership in law firms in Africa

Women In Law Edition 22'

Philosophy and Thought


Ms. Maame Efua Addadzi-Koom

Women's entry into the legal profession across Africa has been progressively increasing in the last decade. However, women's rise to the legal profession's upper echelons has been relatively slow. When it comes to women in law and leadership, a bottom-heavy pattern is commonplace: more women are at the entry level than at the top ranks and in leadership positions.

In 2021, the Institute for African Women in Law (IAWL) surveyed 20 law firms in West, East, and Southern Africa to evaluate the descriptive and symbolic representation of women in law firms, focusing on women in leadership and managerial positions (Gender Scorecard). Except for four law firms where approximately 50% or more of their highest positions were women, all of the firms in the survey recorded lower representation of women at their highest ranks. Eight of the remaining law firms had no women (0%) represented as managing partners. Conversely, women were well-represented at the entry-level of all law firms in the survey. In many law firms in Uganda and Ghana, women dominated the entry-level as 100% of their associates were female (Gender Scorecard).

Leadership in the legal profession continues to be dominated by men. Scholars have attributed several factors to this gender gap in leadership in the legal profession, such as patriarchal attitudes that are deeply steeped in society. These include the historically male-dominated nature of the legal profession; a lack of mentorship and sponsorship for women; a lack of support from women's lawyer associations and societies; and a hostile and biased work environment. Leadership training and mentorship programs, advocacy and support from women lawyer associations, and flexible and gender-sensitive workplace culture policies have been some recommendations for narrowing the gender gap for women in law and leadership. Law firms must make these recommendations to push more women up the leadership ladder because symbolic representation matters. While symbolic representation does not eliminate the systemic biases that women endure daily, it is a significant starting point.

Representation matters because when women see other women at the decision-making table, it increases their confidence in knowing that they too can get to the top. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) #5 seeks to achieve gender equality, and #16 seeks to promote peace, justice, and strong institutions, which can be accelerated if women have equitable opportunities in leadership and decision-making positions.

Interventions to address the women’s leadership gap must start in law firms. Gender diversity means more women at the decision-making table to provide diverse input in the decision-making processes, change persisting masculinist institutional cultures, and drive the agenda for systemic gender quality.

To address these leadership gaps, IAWL has launched the Women’s Excellence in Law and Leadership Academy (WELLA) to drive a continent-wide and pan-African approach to provide training, support, and opportunities to advance women in leadership across the continent.

Our digital archive and leadership training videos provide a rich data source on women who have occupied top legal positions, including partners and managing partners in law firms. Through quantitative data and empirical research, IAWL plans to change the leadership narrative of women in law across Africa.