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Women in Legal Education and Legal Profession

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Women in Legal Education and Legal Profession
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Posted: 2023-01-24T14:05:00Z

By Omnia Gadalla, LLM, Founder of Her Honor Setting the Bar Initiative

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Since 2019, Jan 24 is when the UN celebrates the International Day of Education. 2023 is the fifth year and it is dedicated to Afghan girls who were deprived of their basic right to education and banned from going to school. Malala [1] was a vivid brave example who resisted such a ban and almost lose her life after being shot for advocating girls' right to education.

One of the studies that highschooler can choose for the university level of education is the law. Recently, legal education became globalized. Asian and Islamic legal/finance studies are being taught in American and European law schools/faculties and lawyers who studied law in the east are found practicing it in the west, despite the different legal systems and education.

As biased as it seems, studying law is one of the most eye-opening and intellectually stimulating studies. Law is ever-changing science, and it interacts with other sciences that affect the law in return. It's interlaced and sprawling with each aspect of life. It is also a comparative science and makes you learn from other countries' experiences.

There are several motives for studying law, some people chose to study it following their passion, to earn money, or to be empowered to defend their countries against colonization, ethnicities, religion[2], …etc[3]. Some of the great people who changed the course of history and humanity studied law. The more you read biographies of people who studied law like Gandhi, Justice O’Connor, Justice Ginsburg, Mandela, Sherin Abady[4] and others, the more you are inspired and get ideas of different career routes and lessons to learn from their insights and hindsight and build your own trajectory. Besides, it is known that considerable percentages of presidents, ministers, and other decision-makers in different parts of the world studied law, and some established practitioners in different fields -medicine, journalism, etc.- decide to study law to be more aware of how things are managed from legal and governance perspectives.[5]

As learning and practicing law are prestigious and one of the most financially rewarding jobs in developed countries, the situation is not the same in developing countries. The worse economic and political situations are getting, the more women are suffering and paying most of the price of impoverished society and most importantly outdated education. Besides, women’s rights have always been granted for political compromises and pragmatic gains (more votes for example), and several pieces of evidence in history -even in developed countries- are glaring proof of such an unacceptable/unbelievable fact.[6]

One of the obstacles that encounter women who decide to study and practice law in developing countries is the social stigma attached to it. It also catches and “affects females who are seeking and claiming their rights. They are labeled as “less feminine,” “masculine,” and “not fit for the life of a spouse….”[7]. Women -in communities that link women's future with marriage – centers women's future around marriage /marital status)- are familiar with statements like "don't study law, it is very complicated and, in the end, you will be responsible for your home and family. No need, it does not worth it". Moreover, toxic and fragile masculinity envisages that if women got educated, they will be empowered and will claim to be treated equally and won’t fit in the model of women that ill-informed people/extremists wanted them to be (almost slaves- Jariyah). It is pretty much close to what we see in Afghanistan by the Taliban government and other developing countries. Others invoke religion, arguing that this modern law is contradicting Islamic law and it is haram to study and apply foreign laws that violate Shari’a, even if it is not always true.

Since most law graduates become attorneys, there was a campaign in Egypt[8] a few years ago urging men to not “marry a woman lawyer”. Especially criminal law practitioners, because they claimed that they are no longer women. Besides, they said “don't propose to a law student she is an argumentative person… she knows how to make trouble -assuming abusing the law she studied- or how to get out of trouble”. That’s why some women are forced by family pressure to choose a study other than law in communities that center women future around marriage.

Additionally, one of the major challenges for women's legal education is the very low/weak percentage of women's representation in law-related careers, especially in the higher positions due to various social challenges. Sometimes they are even legal. Since I am teaching in a law school for women only[9] and given my activism in Her Honor Setting the Bar Initiative, which defended Egyptian women’s rights to be judges[10], I have seen the impact of such under-representation of women statistically and in terms of their self-perception which is "unfortunately distorted… in a male-dominated community”[11]. I heard female law students say, "we are emotional and that's why we are not capable of being judges". They -woefully- believed the stereotypes and misconceptions about women that they are used to hear since they were young.

This reminds me of what Justice O’Connor wrote in her book “Majesty of the Law”: “having women on the bench, and in other positions of prominence, is extremely important. The self-perception of women is informed by such examples, and by the belief of women that they too, can achieve professional success at the highest levels... Breaking free of these stereotypes required some good examples. Recent sociological literature strongly suggests that positive role models play a significant role in professional and other achievements.”[12]

As to the legal profession, the image behind excluding women from the legal field finds its roots in male's perception of women's nature which is not for professions as tough as law and “woman's place is the home, underestimating women’s capabilities…”[13] That’s why “some places prefer to engage male lawyers. When female lawyers are involved, they could experience discrimination, such as gender wage gap and delayed promotions, despite being equal in their experience and title…. Additionally, though pregnancy and maternity leave are legally protected characteristics, the stigma attached to both remains. This discrimination has several negative repercussions, including missed promotions, fewer pay raises, and projects being reassigned. Also, in some cases, many women claimed being treated differently upon their return, or even worse, being denied the right to resume their positions. Consequently, some women are often discouraged from taking the full 12 week-leave, which they are legally allotted, due to the work-first culture and fear of being perceived as less committed to their jobs. Moreover, some employers could refuse to hire a newly married female lawyer out of worry that she could get pregnant and go on maternity leave”[14] I was personally asked when I applied to one of the top law firms in the Middle-East “is there any forthcoming marriage step?”!

In parallel to these social and structural challenges, legal education and profession witness myriad challenges in the era of artificial intelligence (“AI”) and legal technology, to the extent of extinction threats to legal education and profession! Some raised the question “Law without lawyers: does legal education has a future”[15] Yet, there is hope/optimism on the horizon and belief that smart human lawyers are still needed, especially in disputes more than corporate matters and AI won’t replace human lawyers before 50 years…at least in developing countries!

In light of the above challenges, the impact of such hurdles can be seen glaringly -for example- in the percentage of Egyptian female law students/graduates compared to male students' percentages. A remarkable report was issued by the Central Agency of Public Mobility and Statistics Report 2022[16] that outlines the ratio of female to male students and academic members from teaching assistants to professors and reflects such a truth. Although female law professors' number/percentage is five times lower than male professors, most top students are females, from which teaching assistants[17] are selected.

To encapsulate, studying law is super intellectually stimulating, and practicing law is one of the noblest acts that someone can do to promote justice and help promote the rule of law. It is even more important for women to claim their rights and lower the huge gender disparity as reflected by the Global Gender Gap Report 2022. 

To that end, teaching the basics of the law, the meaning of the rule of law and rights and duties, and civil society could be one of the projects to be implemented for students at school and faculties other than law -especially in the developing countries-. Besides, school students' visits to courts and judges and law practitioners visits to schools to discuss such legal notions should be organized. Such a project has two folded targets. It is essential for constructing conscious civilized citizens who believe in equality and women’s capabilities from one side and to familiarize and encourage school students to study law.

When I was asked “What are some practical strategies for survival in the legal profession?” this was my answer also to my students “Stay determined and don't let a day pass by without investing in yourself and add to your knowledge. Being updated and aware of what's going on will make you knowledgeable, confident, distinguished and empower you for higher positions/advanced steps. Further, increase your network. It will allow you to share and benefit from exchanging experiences from different practitioners in different legal systems that widen your horizon and produce opportunities’.

For women, don’t let people decide for you what you are able to do and what you are not. Believe in yourself and close/block your ears from those who underestimate women's capabilities and are trapped in stereotypes. Take the opportunity, go for the exposure, explore your potential, and prove them wrong. Along the way, love yourself as a woman, be aware of the extra challenges you encounter, and accept yourself in all your ups and downs.”[18]

[1] Malala is a Pakistani girl who turned to be girls education activist and the Noble Prize awardee for peace in 2014 (the youngest). She received a scholarship to study at Oxford and was rescued by the UAF after being shot on her way back from school by the Taliban.

[2] Access to Legal Education for Muslims (ALEM) is a platform to support the next generation of Indian Muslim advocates and legal scholars.

[3] Choosing what to study is not always up to the person and to females specifically. Sometimes it depends on the score at the high school and other times depends on family approval on what to study.

[4] First woman in the Middle-East (Iran) to win Noble Prize for Peace in 2004. She was the first Iranian woman judge but when the Islamic revolution hit, she had to quit -after transferring her to an administrative position- and commenced defending human rights in Iran and was exiled due to her opposing opinions to the Iranian government and secular views.

[5] Decades ago, in Egypt, the Law faculty was used to be named as the faculty of great people.

[6] In Egypt, modernizing/feminizing personal status laws and enacting other laws that support women or open the gates of certain jobs for women that have always been exclusive to men are frequent. In the USA, President Trump nominated the first woman of color judge in the US Supreme Court despite his misogynist views. President Regan appointed the first woman judge in the US supreme court.


[8] Egypt ranked 129 out of 149 countries in the Global Gender Gap Report 2022

[9] Al-Azhar University (970 A.C) encompasses Shari’a and Law faculties and faculties are sex separated.



[11] The Egyptian Woman Judge: Setting the Bar for Gender Equality, by Omnia Gadalla, Institute for African Women in Law.



[13] The Egyptian Woman Judge: Setting the Bar for Gender Equality, by Omnia Gadalla, Institute for African Women in Law.




[17] First position in the academic profession, then assistant lecturer after obtaining the master's degree, then lecturer after obtaining the Ph.D. Then, assistant professors after academic researches and the same for being prompted to a professor.