“There are no ladies at the Bar”: Exploring Gender-Blindness in the Legal Profession

"There are no ladies at the Bar": Exploring Gender-Blindness in the Legal Profession

Good morning gentlemen and gentlemen in skirts.

This was the opening line of a classmate at the Nigerian Law School, who was making a presentation during our lecture today. This statement reignited the annoyance I felt when I first resumed at the Nigerian Law School for the Bar Part II programme.

During our induction for the programme, a lady – who, if I remember correctly, was the only lady present among those addressing us – made a statement that shocked me:

Good morning gentlemen. As you all know, there are no ladies at the Bar.

When I was undertaking the Bar Part I programme, there was a particular lecturer who always addressed us as ‘gentlemen’, instead of ‘ladies and gentlemen’. I never quite understood it until I heard that lady’s statement at the induction. The statement might not even be that impactful at face value. But when you take into account the context of the legal profession in Nigeria, the statement becomes quite concerning.

Let’s take a small trip down memory lane. In many countries across the world, women were excluded from the legal profession until the late 19th to early 20th century. In fact, in England, where Nigerians used to train before the establishment of the Nigerian Law School, women were not allowed to join the legal profession until the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act was passed in 1919.

Against this context, saying that there are no ladies at the Bar is almost like an affirmation of the notion that women are unfit to study or practise law, but if they somehow manage to pass through law school and get called to the Bar, then they lose their status as ladies and should be properly identified as gentlemen.

Added to this is the fact that women are highly underrepresented at senior levels in the legal profession around the world, including in Nigeria. For example, we did not have a female Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) until 1981. By 2018, only about 20 women had been conferred with the rank of SAN, compared to about 459 men.

When you have such a wide gender gap, the ideal thing to do would be to make efforts to promote the representation of women in the legal profession. But saying ‘there are no ladies at the Bar’ is almost like doing the opposite of that. It is refusing to recognise women, and when you refuse to even recognise them, then by implication there is nothing you can do to promote their representation.

I don’t actually know where the saying that there are no ladies at the Bar originated, but since this statement was made in the Nigerian Law School, I will address my plea to the Council of Legal Education rather than the Nigerian Bar Association.

Dear Council of Legal Education,

In a country where women form less than 5% of SANs and remain grossly underrepresented in senior legal positions, it is imperative that you not only recognise women at the Bar, but actively advocate for their inclusion and promotion. Doing so will contribute greatly to our goal of achieving a gender-equal world, where women and men can fulfil their ambition without limitation.

Thank you.

On behalf of women at the Nigerian Bar.

And for the record, when I eventually get called to the Bar, I will proudly proclaim my status as a lady at the Bar, regardless of what anyone says or thinks.

PS Shout out to Mrs Onoriode, a lecturer in the Nigerian Law School whom I have heard defying the notion that there are no ladies at the Bar.

Related: My First Week at the Nigerian Law School (NLS) Abuja

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