Women in Law: Lerato Thahane, Partner – South Africa


As a successful lawyer, what contributions do you see female lawyers making in the workplace/to South Africa’s economy?

I see women using their unique leadership skills to more efficiently transform vision into action, develop and cultivate talent, and empower and encourage others in the workplace.

The best female leaders are natural nurturers, and we know that workers excel when talent is nurtured, invested in, and promoted. Women, in my experience, are the best at doing this.

The most successful female leaders are at ease with their development areas. When leaders are not afraid to say what they need and share authentic experiences (including in relation to their struggles) with others around them, it encourages others to feel comfortable with being open and self-aware enough to say what they need without fear of repercussions.

Finally, the best female leaders are instinctively gifted at developing relationships, speaking, and listening. They are more naturally wired to quickly develop empathy towards others around them.

Have you experienced gender bias in your career and, if so, how did you overcome it? // Share a moment in your career where you experienced/confronted/overcame gender bias.

Research shows that full-time working mothers who are 42 years of age experience a wage ‘penalty,’ making 11% less than women without children. And when education, region and occupational class are considered, this ‘penalty’ drops to 7%. Full-time working fathers of the same age, however, actually experience a wage ‘bonus,’ making 22% more than men without children. And when education, region and occupational class are considered, this ‘bonus’ drops to 21%.

When I was pregnant, many well-meaning people would ask me whether the timing was right given my career progression, whether I was worried about being indirectly penalized by my organisation for having a baby, whether I was concerned about the impacts that having a baby would have on my success at the firm.

My husband received none of these questions. I naturally didn’t take it to heart but the different treatment that he received every time he mentioned that we had a baby on the way compared to the treatment I received was telling of the deeply engrained societal bias many people hold as regards working moms.

While this concerns me from time to time, I choose not to let the biases around gender and parental status Influence how I show up to work.

What advice would you give to younger women aspiring to make a career in law?

Don’t be a pushover; be humble and ready to learn.

Don’t measure yourself against others. Allowing yourself to compare your life, achievements, or something else about you to others is a bad idea. That isn’t needed. You’re better off staying in your lane and giving it your all.

Make your own rules. Each of us has our own set of strengths and weaknesses. Playing to one’s strengths while mitigating one’s weaknesses is one of the tricks that good lawyers use all the time. Concentrate on the qualities that distinguish you in every workplace and show competence in anything you do.

Acknowledge and welcome criticism. It’s difficult to hear that your skills aren’t as refined as you had hoped, but that’s the essence of our profession: you’ll always have to learn, develop, and stretch yourself. When you get feedback that you don’t want to hear, keep your feelings out of it and use it as an opportunity to learn and improve yourself.

Be self-sufficient while still contributing to a team. I believe that the most effective women understand that one of the most important job skills you can bring to any career is the ability to work independently when necessary, but still knowing when you need to cooperate and be a team player when the task at hand requires it.

Finally, make an effort to connect with other women. Meeting other women and making connections is one of the most beneficial things you can do in your new career. Women in the workplace may form an unofficial sisterhood, with many of them looking out for each other. 

Which women are you inspired by in your career? And why?

Phuthi Mahanyele-Dabengwa, a South African business executive currently working as the chief executive officer of Naspers South Africa. She previously held the positions of co-founder and chief executive officer at Sigma Capital and CEO at the Shanduka Group. In 2019 she was chosen as Forbes/CNBC Africa Businesswoman of the Year. She is a seasoned business leader with a strong track record of achievement throughout her career. Phuthi once said, ‘My biggest strength is that I do not fear strength in others, I celebrate it’. This has always resonated with me and taught me to find the strengths of every person I work with and celebrate them.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a novelist and feminist campaigner. I could go on about the many ways in which she inspired me. One that comes to mind takes me back to Chimamanda’s 2013 lecture titled We Should All Be Feminists. She said, ‘We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, ‘You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful, otherwise you would threaten the man.’ This has always stuck with me and that is why I always strive for excellence. I always run for gold. I have more ambition than my heart can hold and strive for more success than my mind can imagine… and if I threaten the man, well so be it.

About Lerato Thahane

Lerato Thahane is a partner in our Johannesburg office Corporate Department. She has advised private and public companies on domestic and cross border acquisitions and disposals, empowerment transactions, general corporate matters, commercial matters, group restructurings and unbundling of shareholdings. She joined Bowmans in 2011. Between 2018 and 2019 she worked at the Munich office of Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer where she advised on both mergers and acquisitions and private equity transactions. Lerato has an LLB and a Certificate in Advanced Company Law from the University of the Witwatersrand. She also has a Notarial Practice and Conveyancing Certificate from the Centre for Conveyancing Practice.