‘Leadership positions are not the Exclusive preserve of men’

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JOYCE ODUAH FICMC INTERVIEW WITH THIS DAY NEWAPAPER

1. After over three decades you emerged the first female General Secretary of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), and only the second female General Secretary in the history of the body. How difficult was it, for you to be able to achieve this feat? Did you experience any form of gender discrimination along the way which could have discouraged you? Why does there seem to be a paucity of females holding key positions, not only in our umbrella body, the NBA, but within our profession as a whole and governmental positions, like Senior Advocates and even. State Governors? What can be done to stem this negative tide?

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Emerging as the General Secretary of the NBA, which is the largest Bar in Africa with approximately 200, 000 lawyers was no mean task and I am grateful to God for the experience and opportunity to serve. I will begin by shedding light on why I think there is a paucity of females holding key positions in the legal profession. A few day ago at the Commonwealth Lawyers Association Conference in the Bahamas, I spoke on the theme: Sexism in the Legal Profession: Time’s Up. I emphasized that the reason only few women hold key positions in the Legal profession is as a result of the deep rooted patriarchy and sexism in the Nigeria and Africa which has in turn seeped into the legal profession. Whether one is a Christian, Muslim or Traditionalist; regardless of tribe or cultural affiliation, we are taught that “The Man is the head of a woman”. The woman is relegated to motherly and wifely responsibilities while the man is expected to cater for the home and lead it. Even where, as it is today, women are accepted in the economic, political or professional spheres, they are usually pushed to subordinate roles and only a few rise to top leadership positions.

When society endorses gender discriminatory practices it rubs off on the mindset of the members of that society, both male and female. This is the reason you find that most women are either scared or not interested in challenging the status quo and putting themselves out for leadership. Also, most men (and even women) tend to resist female leadership with all they have got because it is unimaginable that a woman will “rule over them”. So, I believe it is the society itself that is responsible for the paucity of women holding key positions not only in the legal profession but also in the wider society. Personally, I have experienced gender discrimination on many levels, but I have never let it stop me from achieving my goals. This is because I grew up in the care of strong independent ordinary women who always went for what they wanted and did not stop until they got it. I am referring to my mother, God rest her soul and my elder sister. From observing them and listening to them, I learnt that I could achieve whatever I set out to achieve. I have never been scared to take up leadership responsibilities regardless of society’s strictures. From my primary and secondary school days, I have always accepted leadership responsibilities. I was head girl in both Primary and secondary schools and have continued to accept leadership position in social, religious and professional circles. My most recent experience of gender discrimination was when I declared my intention to run for the office of the General Secretary of the NBA.

Many of those I confided in about my intention, men and women alike, tried to dissuade me on grounds that the office of the General Secretary was a male rather than a female position. According to them, it was a strenuous office and a woman lacked the physical and emotional capability to handle it. Their rationale was that heading the Secretariat of an Association with about 179,015 lawyers was not an easy feat even for a man, much less a woman. I was warned that it requires a lot of travelling and it would be difficult to combine heading the secretariat of the largest bar in Africa with private practice and family. Also, I was opposed by three strong male contenders vying for the same office. I was not deterred. I believe that determination combined with commitment and diligence is what is required to perform well in any position. Sex; that is maleness or femaleness cannot be the determinant of whether or not a person will succeed in a particular role. With support from God, my family, male champions and female lawyers, I won the election with more than half of the total votes. For me, it wasn’t merely about ‘winning’ my three male colleagues who also presented themselves for service to the NBA, it was about being in a position to effect real and positive change in the Nigerian Bar Association.As I said before, it is the society that places the strictures on women. Not the Law. In fact, there is no law anywhere that states that a requirement to be a President or Governor of a state is that one must be male.

There is no Legal Practitioners Law that states that to be a Senior Advocate of Nigeria one must be a man. The constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria in Section 42 also forbids discrimination based on sex. However, society seems not to have caught up with the law in this regard. For example, in the recent conferment of the rank of SAN, only 4 female academics were nominated out of 130 lawyers shortlisted. No female advocate was nominated. Even when women are in leadership, it is usually appointive rather than elective positions. The few women who rise up the corporate, political or professional are seen as undeserving of these positions. It is believed that these positions were obtained based on tokenism or Dash. What this means is that women are only chosen for these positions to fill up the female quota to avoid the perception of gender bias.To stem this negative tide, I believe that consciously and strategically adopting a culture of diversity and inclusion of both sexes in leadership positions is a necessity. Specific leadership quotas should be allocated to women to ensure equal representation for the benefit of the legal profession and the society as a whole. I am not suggesting that women be given positions merely to avoid the perception of bias and so fulfil all righteousness. Diversity and Inclusion is the willingness for all to see that there are women who are capable of holding sensitive corporate and political leadership positions by merit; to identify these women and ensure they reach the apex of their careers. Women need to continue to work hard to dominate the top on the platform of merit.

Sensitization of members of the society on the need to eliminate sexist practices and the benefits of female participation in leadership using all available channels like the internet, social media, conferences, seminars, etc. is very important. We must also welcome and invite men to be a part of these discussions so that we can; one, show them the benefits of having a non-sexist society; two, teach them how they can be of help; three, show them that we value their opinions and support in creating a sexist free society. I know of men who go out of their way to push women to succeed. Kudos to the male champions! I believe that the minds of people are being sensitized against sexism and discrimination based on sex. As you know, International bodies especially the UN are trying to promote and push for female inclusion and diversity in the workplace, in entrepreneurship, in corporate and political leadership, etc. People, men and women alike, are beginning to realize that the gender stereotypes which existed in the past are nothing but a farce or a myth. However, this must not blind our eyes to the fact that many are still stuck in the past. Truth is, there were as many men and women who opposed me as result of sex as there were those who supported me. We need to continually emphasize that non-discrimination against women and inclusion of women in leadership is beneficial to us all in the long run. Studies have shown that female participation allows for growth, development and stability in the society.

Diversity of thoughts and perspective leads to more effective and efficient decision making.I believe the legal profession as the third estate of the realm after the executive and the legislature has to lead the charge in stemming this negative tide. This is why we have very strong female groups in the Legal profession and within the NBA like the International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA), NBA Women Forum, etc. These groups organize conferences to encourage women to put themselves out for leadership positions and also to serve as a support system for women contesting for key positions. We need a recalibration of the perspective of the members of the society that reminds us that leadership is not the exclusive preserve of the men.Women in leadership also need to support, encourage and provide opportunities for other women to grow. We need mentors and mentorship programmes. A point I always emphasize in my speaking engagements and mentoring platforms is; “women, we need to support each other to succeed. We are most of what we have got”. Women also need to believe in themselves. Overtime, I have come to realize that the mind is a very powerful place that can set the tone for our lives. Whatever we think, dream or aspire towards is achievable. When we fix a thought in our minds and it is strong enough, it mobilizes our bodies and the universe to act on them.

2. What have you done to improve the lot of women in our profession as the General Secretary of the NBA? Even as far as the NBA is concerned, have you been able to achieve any affirmative action in favour of the women, to provide that a percentage of the Executive positions must be filled by women?

There is this saying that women in power do not support other women to rise. This is not true, at least not in my case. I am passionate about Mentoring the younger generation of female lawyers and students to shun discriminatory practices with tact, to believe in themselves and to make themselves available for appointive and elective leadership positions. I believe that holding the office of the General Secretary as well as my achievements both in and out of office provides me with the influence and clout needed to effect change in the mindset and attitude of female lawyers and students. For example, I have engaged in discussions with the Law Students Association female wing; the NBA Women Conference, etc. I am passionate about the NBA Women Forum. The forum organises seminars, workshops, symposia on emerging areas of law to enhance the professional and leadership skills of women lawyers. Under my watch, the NBA National Secretariat will continue to collaborate with the Women Forum to organise professional trainings, seminars and other empowerment programs for our female lawyers.Like I said, the NBA constitution does not provide for maleness as a requirement for any executive position, it is the women that are usually scared to or apathetic about putting themselves out there for leadership; this is the reason I always try to encourage women through these mentorship platforms to believe in themselves. Women are adequately represented in all NBA Committees, Sections and Statutory Bodies. I will continue to work with the NBA President to ensure that a sizeable number of female lawyers are nominated and appointed into the service of the NBA. Like I always say, ‘Women are the light at the end of the tunnel, ever forging hope through the course that is humanity.

3. ’As you approach the second half of your two-year tenure, what has been your experience administering this huge body of almost 200,000 learned persons spread across 125 branches?

So far, occupying the position of the General Secretary of the largest Bar in Africa has been exciting and at the same time challenging. I use the word challenging in a positive sense. Serving about 200,000 lawyers is no small task. It has pushed me to see real issues that members have and face and have placed me in a position to proffer and provide solutions to their issues. It has put me in a position to effect real change in the Association. My team and I have been working hard to digitize and professionalize the secretariat for effective service delivery to members. We have begun talks to optimize our website and also build the NBA Application to bring members closer to the Association. The Continuing Legal Education is now more active and vibrant than it had been in the past. I use this opportunity to encourage members to take their Continuous Learning Education seriously. It is my dream, goal and mission that the effect and impact of the NBA is felt by all our members for good. It is not merely about paying for Stamp & Seal or Bar Practicing Fees; it’s about what the value that the NBA can add to the members. This administration led by our President Olumide Akpata is on its toes to see this happen. And I must say it has been fulfilling so far. So far, my sex or should I say femaleness has not stopped me from performing my role effectively and efficiently. The sex bias was just a myth after all. I’m really grateful to God for the strength and capacity to serve the NBA, and I am sure that at the end of the administration supporters and-non-supporters would be proud of me, and of womenfolk.

4. So far, what innovations have you introduced to the NBA as the General Secretary?

One of my major campaign promises to the members of the Bar was the digitization and professionalization of the NBA Secretariat to make service delivery more effective and efficient in line with International Best Practices. Upon assuming office, I realized that members often forget or lose their supreme court enrolment numbers and have to resort to calling the Secretariat or visiting the NBA website to recover it. This process is mostly strenuous for members due to lack of data subscription, poor network reception, etc. After much thought, research and consultations with experts, I proposed the building and configuration of a dedicated USSD Code for the NBA which, once dialled by lawyers, would automatically generate their Supreme Court Enrolment Number. Approval was given by the President, Executives and NEC. I believe that this code will make retrieval of Supreme court number by members of our prestigious Association seamless and effortless. Also, the NBA Application, which will serve as a one stop platform for every member of the association’s welfare, social, administrative and career advancement needs is currently in the pipelines. We are working assiduously to ensure it is up and running in no time.

We have set up a fully functional dedicated toll-free call centre which we encourage members of the profession to take advantage of when they need to reach the Secretariat for their complaints, requests or questions. In line with our campaign promise to professionalize the National Secretariat, we have commenced the process of training the Secretariat staff in various field in order to improve their skills for optimal performance. Our aim is to ensure that those working at the National Secretariat are well equipped with the required skills and knowledge in their various fields. We engage both international and local certified institutions to train our workforce. We strongly believe that this training will not only boost job satisfaction at the Secretariat but will also enhance effective service delivery to our members and the public at large.One thing this administration has achieved is the speedy response to members’ complaints and petitions, swift production of NBA Stamp and Seal, quick attendance to insurance and welfare claims by members, etc. We are particularly focused on the welfare and wellbeing of our members and are currently working on a health insurance scheme for our members. We prioritize building an institutional memory through proper filing of records and resolutions so that it is easily accessible by members. The goal is to continue to make life and practice easy for Nigerian lawyers. It’s been a tasking yet fulfilling ride so far. Under my leadership, the Secretariat will continue to put the members of the Bar first in everything.

5. May General Secretaries in the past have had frosty relationships with their Presidents. How has yours been with your President?

When working with anyone, it is possible that clashes may occur based on differences in perspective and background. However, I believe that so long as these differences are not based on selfish rationales, it is healthy. The President and I have had our fair share of differences, but it is usually based on the wellbeing of the organizations and the members. One thing I appreciate about my relationship with the President is that when the welfare of the members or association is at stake, we put aside any differences we may have and work together as a team for the upliftment of the Bar. This is the reason I say that diversity is important for any organization to thrive. It provides for a diverse environment where choices can be questioned, where doubts are acceptable for good decisions to be made. Our relationship may not be perfect, but it is cordial and professional.

6. Going forward, do you plan to run for the office of Presidency of the NBA in the future, and become the second female President of our esteemed Association?

Wow. Thank you for the question. The motivation to run for any office should not be about become the first or second female or male to hold that office. It should be about the desire and the capability to effect progress and development in the organization or society. I must say, I get asked this question from time to time. In fact, I laughed so hard when I saw a Facebook post including me among the ‘Titans’ to contest for the office of NBA President in 2024.Truth is, I am not certain of the answer yet. What I do know is that when I choose to run for President of the NBA by God’s grace, it would be on the basis of influencing positive change in the NBA and in the legal profession as a whole. I will definitely let you know when the time comes.

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