Partner at BLC Robert & Associates in Mauritius Valerie Bisasur on how her mentality helped overcome discrimination in her early career and how the environment in Mauritius has improved greatly but till requires work
How do you think the covid-19 pandemic has or will impact gender parity in the legal profession within your jurisdiction?
If organisations expect their lawyers to work like they did before the pandemic, the impact on gender parity will be surely unfavourable. For most mothers or women living in more traditional families, it is hard to imagine how expectations about billable hours or availability, for instance, can remain unchanged in the face of additional daily issues. Closed schools, concerns about having babysitters and grandparents to help with childcare, lack of understanding from families regarding work commitments, are some examples of the fact that gender equality is not yet a given in most households in Mauritius may impact women on the long run.
The likelihood of continuous work from home policies, may create a feeling isolation and pressure to adapt to a diffuse work environment. The constant demands of clients and of management together with the issues highlighted above, mean that, for many female lawyers, working from home has become a 24/7 reality, which is neither healthy nor sustainable.
On the other hand, some organisations may not have the full infrastructure in place to allow their staff to fully work from home; raising additional concerns for mothers who may be called to make a choice between career and family post confinement.
Leaders should adjust their business models and expectations to take the above into account to retain and support their talents. Part of an effective leadership is to engage in regular pulse checks, especially in such unprecedented circumstances, to avoid actions that are contrary to a culture of equality and defeat the firm's goal of retaining and advancing a diverse pool of talent.
What obstacles have you had to contend with during your legal career that related to your gender?
I strongly believe that life situations are what we decide to make of them. You can consider that a particular situation is an obstacle or a challenge: I choose the latter. I encountered challenges related to my gender in my career and will undoubtedly come across more. While gender has never been a concern in my career within BLC Robert as an organization, I had to handle stereotypes from clients and other members of the legal profession who first judged my potential based on my gender rather than by my competences or who would only address my male colleagues in a meeting rather than me. The most challenging experience was certainly my exposure to the courts, at the beginning of my career when I was also involved in litigation. It was shocking how as a young novice female lawyer; I was either wrong even before saying a word or simply invisible to the bench or to the most members of the legal profession. While other female lawyers have and are brilliantly making their way in the litigation arena, this experience was not a failure for me, I did my best, I learned, and I was comforted in my choice to dedicate my career to transactional work.
Do you feel the legal profession within the jurisdiction where you are based treats women and men equally? If there are inconsistencies where are these most noticeable?
There is a remarkable number of women who have joined the legal profession over the past 20 years, and I am part of this generation. This increase in women's participation in the legal profession and just like other sectors of our economy, is the result of a shift of women's role in our society. Today, women represent almost half of the law practitioners in the country. Out of 21 judges sitting at the Supreme Court of Mauritius, 14 are women.
Despite this huge progress, inconsistencies are still present. One example - in spite of their long years of standing, undisputed contribution to the legal profession, to various areas of law and to the jurisprudence (with some being praised by international organisations), only two female barristers and three female attorneys have been elevated to the rank of Senior Counsel and Senior Attorney, respectively, and this is as recently as 2010 and 2016.
Who do you consider have been the leading figures in your jurisdiction’s legal profession in improving or challenging gender equality in the last decade and why?
It is difficult to distinguish one leading figure. Several women (and men!) in the legal profession have contributed to gender equality by raising their voices against certain blatant inequalities, contributing to law reforms, to the spread of legal knowledge, to make jurisprudence, but also by leading the way with their amazing careers in private practice, the academic field, the judiciary, the public sector or as in-house of corporations.
What initiatives do you have in place at your firm to promote gender equality? Does your firm have other diversity programmes?
We have not formalised any diversity or gender programmes yet, but equality is one of our core values which defines our firm’s culture and is embraced by everyone. A snapshot of our team reflects our total inclusion and cultural diversity because our focus more on competences and on the motivation of our people rather than on their gender or ethnicity. We believe on equality of competences and invest on our talents to give them all the necessary exposure to develop themselves as lawyers and to naturally make their way through the career path of BLC Robert.
How does your firm compare to others in your market when considering gender equality?
Women are quite well represented in most transactional law firms. BLC Robert celebrated its 15 years of existence in 2020. The firm counted four male partners but in 2018, the partnership has been opened to move to the second generation of partners with four new partners out of which two are women. With about 59% of female employees, gender equality is clearly present as it forms part of our overall culture of equality.
What do you feel are the biggest obstacles for women in your jurisdiction joining the legal profession now?
Despite the dynamic female workforce of our country, stereotypes are present even now in our society and the legal profession is not an exception.
Women still suffer from the misperception that they have a lack commitment towards their careers. However, the majority of female lawyers that I come across clearly shows determination, passion and resilience in their professional life.
The need for women to compare themselves or to be in constant competition with men is unfortunately still present, most of the time dictated by the professional and social environment in which we evolve.
There is also this wrong impression that at a point in time a woman will have to make a choice between career and family, while clearly the two can be combined.
These stereotypes and misperceptions coupled with self-limited beliefs that some women may have due to their education or bad experiences may discourage many female talents from pursuing their goals as lawyers.
Do you feel women are well represented at partner level and in management positions in firms within the jurisdiction where you are based?
The legal market has changed in the country over the past 15 years with the law firm structures and more in-house legal departments being created in corporations, this has opened the door to new possibilities of legal careers in which female lawyers are well represented. While there were originally very few female lawyers managing their own chambers, we now see more female lawyers with a certain number of years of experience leaving structures where they felt stuck in their careers, open their own firm with a completely different model and a fresh vision of legal services – this is really inspiring and encouraging.
Despite the terrific steps forward, we have not yet reached a paradigm shift. The misconception that women get access to high positions simply to fill in the gender quota and not as a result of their leadership, recognition of their competence and contribution to an organisation, needs to be broken.
What advice would you give to women in junior positions to encourage them to work towards attaining senior positions?
Your competence, hard work and passion should speak for themselves. Your gender, your ethnicity or the colour of your skin do not determine if you are a good lawyer. We always have the choice to accept circumstances or to say no. If the environment in which you are evolving professionally does not recognise your work and your competences, then it is probably time for you to consider other professional options where you will be able to thrive and reach senior positions.
Having a successful career in your field is something very personal and is not measured by comparing to the achievements and standards of others. A successful career for some may not be for others. At the end of the day, what matters is to stay true to yourself and to work hard to be the best lawyer that you can be.