Senior women lawyers across Asia share personal stories of successes, struggles and strategies for a more inclusive legal profession. Vandana Chatlani reports

The women profiled in this article have worked in-house, in private practice, in court and in the judiciary. They also share another common factor – seniority. To see women lawyers in positions of leadership in Asia is inspiring, but perhaps misleading to some extent, as they do not represent the norm.

In 2016, Grace Yeoh was the first woman in 100 years to be appointed managing partner at Shearn Delamore in Kuala Lumpur; Singapore-based Rebecca Chew was the first woman in Rajah & Tann’s history to hold the deputy managing partner position; and last year, Melissa Kaye Pang became the first women president of the Hong Kong Law Society in its 110-year history.

Although these are exceptional achievements, the fact that we are still counting and celebrating firsts suggests that the profession needs to do more to create a new narrative where women leaders are no longer a rarity.

“Unfortunately, very little has changed,” says Lin Shi, president of the Association of Corporate Counsel in Hong Kong. “There’s a lot of rhetoric and a lot of events focusing on diversity programmes. But when it comes down to it, what kind of accommodations are you providing? What kind of incentives are you giving to male staff to shoulder their half of the housework and caregiving? Until that happens, this work will still fall upon women.”

Before analyzing the experience of women lawyers in Asia, it is crucial to acknowledge their diverse, complex and multiple realities in a region divided by language, economics, politics, history, religion, geography, tradition and sociocultural codes.

The different trajectories in terms of legal sector development across Asia also affect opportunities for women.

“Myanmar was in the dark for so many years and sanctions were only lifted recently, so there’s a gap in terms of lawyers,” says Hanim Hamzah, the regional managing partner of Zico Law Network. “At some point they only had lawyers in their 60s and 70s, because for a long time there were no law schools under the military junta government. So it’s not just gender, but the availability of talent that’s an issue.”

Brunei provides another example where opportunities for women are slim because of political and cultural norms. “The Bruneians are generally well-educated and want to participate, but the market is small,” says Hamzah. “It’s a population of 400,000 people. Of that, 200 are lawyers; 100 work for the sultan and only 100 go to private practice. Most of those involved are men, maybe because of issues relating to [Brunei] being an Islamic state.”

Despite these and other dramatic differences, there are commonalities and universal themes that unite women lawyers in Asia and around the world.

Women increasingly make up the majority of new entrants within the legal profession in Asia. But as is the case beyond the region, too few find their way to partnerships. In many cases, this speaks more about workplace policy than unequal opportunity.

“I think all law firms in Asia and in the West are grappling with the same problem – how to retain women talent,” says Zia Mody, the managing partner at AZB & Partners in Mumbai. “Everyone has gone beyond the point of hiring women. They are valuable. The question is how many have really finessed the conversation with women on how to keep them.”

“From an in-house perspective, organizations need to understand both what draws women to in-house roles and why some women leave these positions,” says Tanya Khan, vice president and managing director for Australia and Asia-Pacific at the Association of Corporate Counsel, Australia. “Companies must implement policies and programmes to attract and retain them.”

“I think if you’re small enough, which we are, the solution is pretty much bespoke,” says Mody. She has conversations with new mothers individually to figure out their requirements and how these can fit in at the firm. “When there is proper expectation setting, you see everyone fall in line including all the male partners.”

Arfidea Saraswati, a founding partner at Akset Law in Jakarta, says her firm introduced an extra three months of unpaid maternity leave (on top of the mandatory three months of paid leave) because she demanded the same after having her first child while at her former firm. “Your child becomes your number one client,” says Saraswati. “I told them I would resign if I didn’t get the extra time off. They gave it to me and it became a precedent.”

At Akset, female employees who are having a child or getting married are not required to stay later than 5:30pm, work weekends or travel for the first year unless they wish to do so. “We understand that the first year is the busiest for a new mum,” she says. Her colleagues have discussed other policy measures, such as unpaid paternity leave, which the firm also plans to consider.

Cultural codes and stereotypes

Many of the lawyers profiled expressed frustrations with existing stereotypes of women, and discussed desires to change cultural expectations of women within and outside the workplace.

In most parts of Asia, women who work are stilloften required to bear domestic, childcare and other familial responsibilities almost entirely. “They routinely have to balance both equally,” says Mumbai-based Jagriti Bhattacharyya, chief counsel of Thomson Reuters. “In India we need more awareness and affirmative action to change the mindset and recognize that women are expected to manage domestic responsibilities unlike a lot of their male colleagues.”

Such deep-rooted views mean that while women have been empowered to some degree, gender roles are still largely set in stone. “China is a complete paradox,” says Shi. “You had Mao [Zedong] proclaim that women hold up half the sky and can do anything, but at the same time you also have a very feudal mentality that deems housework, cooking and caring for the elderly and the young to be women’s work.”

This view of a women’s duties can sometimes extend to the tasks they are given in the workplace. “When I was a junior associate, I was expected to be helpful and felt social pressure to volunteer for ‘office housework’,” says Phuong Nguyen, the managing partner at Zico Law in Vietnam. “Firms are more likely to assign women to these tasks, because women are more likely to agree to perform them.”

Some lawyers question whether workplace policies are enough to shift such entrenched views about a woman’s worth, place and individual identity in societies where they have historically been treated as subservient, second-class citizens.

Miki Sakakibara, president of the Japan In-house Lawyers Association, points out that Japan’s public registration system mandates by law that women take their husband’s name after marriage. Similarly, despite existing sex discrimination laws in Hong Kong, married women cannot give a child their own name. “How do you explain that my child has to have my husband’s surname?” asks Shi. “The government has to be consistent in its messaging. [Changing such laws] would be a very public message by the government saying I am holding both sexes equal.”

Partnerships and progress

Although the quest for gender parity continues, there are undoubtedly signs of progress. In many cases, women today enjoy more freedom from societal norms and have greater agency in determining their priorities and shaping their future.

“In the past few decades, we have seen the diversification of the legal profession,” says Bhattacharyya. “In-house roles have become more attractive, intellectually stimulating, professionally fulfilling and financially rewarding. With the legal sector opening up the way it has … there are now more opportunities for women to be in the profession.”

“There is definitely some aspiration for an improved work-life balance, but it’s more about time for yourself than starting a family,” says Audray Souche, managing director of DFDL Thailand. “I see that very strongly and it’s very specific to Thailand. I don’t think there’s any conscious career consideration, it’s more about a generation which is very focused on enjoying the current moment.”

In addition, the MeToo movement has forced a restructuring of social relations between men and women, leading to a greater awareness of the need for equality and respect. And government policies such as “womenomics”, a campaign by Japanese president Shinzo Abe to have women in 30% of leadership roles by 2020, offer further fuel towards gender parity goals.

Many lawyers stress the need for solidarity, sisterhood, mentorship and sponsorship. As women take on new positions of power within the legal industry, they gain the chance to disrupt patriarchal structures, introduce fairer policies, become role models and improve prospects for younger women lawyers.

The following mosaic of personal stories identifies some of the nuances that typify women’s experiences in particular Asian jurisdictions, while also drawing on the wealth of shared experiences that bind them.

 


MIKI SAKAKIBARA, JAPAN IN-HOUSE LAWYERS ASSOCIATION

Stepping out of your comfort zone

Women must take a leap of faith to seize leadership opportunities and rally against traditional cultural codes

“Ever since I was a young girl, I’ve found it difficult to watch women being treated in an inferior or unequal manner. From then on, I have been passionate about fighting against gender discrimination.

When I became a lawyer 20 years ago, I was one among only 12% of women. Today in Japan, 20% of lawyers are women and in-house, women make up 40% of lawyers.

Miki-Sakakibara-Panasonic
Miki Sakakibara
President
Japan In-House Lawyers Association

In the US, I’ve heard that clients are demanding law firm diversity, not just in terms of more women, but more representation from other minorities such as the LGBT community. It would be ideal if clients in Japan demanded the same, but they themselves have not diversified yet, so they can’t expect others to do so. First, we have to change our companies from the inside.

Fortunately, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ‘womenomics’ campaign is geared towards seeing women fill 30% of leadership positions by 2020. As a result, you find many high-ranking women in government these days. Private entities, however, continue to lag behind.

Things are slowly changing because of corporate governance pressure. Many companies have decided to appoint outside directors and they tend to choose woman lawyers. That is progress, but one woman out of 15-20 board members is not enough.

Across Japanese companies and law firms, the situation is more or less the same. There are not enough women. Foreign companies and law firms are much further ahead.

Gender diversity is my first priority, but I believe you have to hold a position of power to make a bigger impact. Before I became president of JILA [Japan In-house Lawyers Association], women comprised only 10% of board members. Now, we have a total of 40% – an accomplishment of which I’m very proud. Each time I have a chance to visit the Bar Association, I remind them of JILA’s statistics so they feel pressured to follow our example.

There are other related issues such as the pay gap, but I think redressing the imbalance of men and women is of prime concern. If women make up at least 30%, it will strengthen our voices and give us real decision-making power.

Most women have domestic and childcare responsibilities, so they cannot commit the same amount of time to work as their male counterparts. They often have to leave the office earlier and this impacts the results they can deliver. As long as law firms continue to use billable hours, women will struggle and are unlikely to become partners. This challenge is not confined to the legal profession.

Our cultural values also create barriers for women. Girls are generally raised to be quiet, step down and have fewer experiences with regard to leadership and speaking up, even within the family. So it starts from a really early age. We are trained that way. Men and boys have been raised differently. Even at kindergarten and in elementary schools, teachers expect boys to assume leadership roles, or be head of the class. As a woman, you don’t get that practice.

Recently, I was elected as an independent director of a company, and that was good news, but I felt I hadn’t been trained for that role. I accepted the position because I knew it was a good opportunity. I advise young JILA members, especially young women lawyers, to speak up and seize opportunities, even if they don’t feel comfortable doing so. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves to be assertive and confident.

If you’re a young woman lawyer at a company, you could feel isolated in an environment dominated by men. However, at JILA, women can participate in our diversity group, giving them a chance to interact with and emulate different role models.

Women lawyers sitting on JILA’s board can become high-level decision makers even if they don’t yet hold those positions at their companies. They can use JILA as a platform to advance and get training. It’s only one organization, but it can help many.”

 


JAGRITI BHATTACHARYYA, THOMSON REUTERS, MUMBAI

Creating a nurturing ecosystem

A shift in sociocultural dynamics requires respect, role models and institutional responsibility

“The gender-based challenges women lawyers face are not specific to the profession. These challenges emanate from sociocultural and economic factors that exist across other professions. The only difference is that India has a law around sexual harassment, so lawyers have a better understanding of their own rights. But it’s still never easy to speak up, no matter how emboldened you are. Just because one is a lawyer doesn’t change anything. The apprehension and the journey remain the same.

The hesitation to report harassment emanates from seeing how some of these issues blow up. When you look at all the #MeToo callouts that have happened, you see the backlash against complainants. It’s a huge emotional effort to be willing to endure that.

Jagriti Bhattacharyya
Chief counsel
Thomson Reuters, Mumbai

Even with the legal framework that exists, there is a social, cultural impact that one has to be prepared to face. There are perceptions at play with people forming opinions and passing judgments. All of that is challenging to deal with.

The sexual harassment law is a deterrent akin to laws that prohibit drunk driving. It doesn’t mean there are no incidents of drunk driving, but the number of incidents reduce. It has raised awareness levels, and that itself is a big step towards changing social dynamics in the workplace in a better way.

I was always very aware of my gender as an in-house counsel in the banking and finance industry, because often I was the only woman in a room full of suits. In my earlier years, I encountered challenges due to misogynistic behaviour, inappropriate workplace conduct, or mansplaining.

But I think as we grow in our career and gain credibility, we become more assertive. The behaviour doesn’t stop, but we become better equipped to deal with it.

I see a change in behaviour, but I don’t know if it is because the world has truly evolved, or because I have moved up the leadership chain now.

It’s important to build credibility, and that can only come with being the best version of yourself at work, and giving it 100%. It’s also vital to create a network of mentors, officers and buddies that provide a bulwark for the tough times. For younger women at work, having a mentorship arrangement with guidance, support and encouragement from seniors will go a long way.

Recognizing the significance of women in the workforce, and how crucial they are to the economy, will help create an ecosystem that gives women greater support to help them succeed at work. There has been some progress empowered by laws in India to provide crèches, paternity leave, increased maternity policy, etc., but all of that needs a social, cultural, nurturing evolution.

It’s about women being there for other women, whether at the workplace or in your family. And women raising strong men and strong women. What we see at home often translates to how we are in the workplace. We need to create an ecosystem that changes age-old values. It has definitely improved a lot from a prior generation, but we still have a long way to go. I have friends and colleagues who are fantastic fathers and a great source of support for their wives. I see them more involved in raising their children and participating in responsibilities at home. I don’t think we should paint everybody with the same brush. We just need more men like that.”

 


CATHERINE O’CONNELL, CATHERINE O’CONNELL LAW, TOKYO

Male champions & best practices

Why men should be part of the quest for women’s empowerment in Japan

Catherine O’Connell has worked as a lawyer in New Zealand, London and Japan. She practised law in Japan, both in-house and in private practice, for 16 years before launching her own law firm in Tokyo a year ago. She offers companies and in-house teams legal assistance on a part-time, contract or bridging basis.

“I felt very different in London, compared to Japan. As soon as I speak, I’m obviously not a Londoner, or English. I was seen as being from the antipodes and colonies. That is how some people viewed me, to be perfectly honest. It was very hard to get into the inner circle because I didn’t speak their language.

Catherine O’Connell
Founder
Catherine O’connell Law, Tokyo

In contrast, in Japan, when I say I am a lawyer, people immediately respect me. And because I do speak the language, I haven’t faced any discrimination. I never felt that I was supposed to get the tea, or clear up after a meeting – I simply haven’t had that. I know people have experienced that here in other roles, but in the legal profession you’re very much respected, even as a foreign female lawyer.

I think it’s different for Japanese women who are lawyers, because there is still pressure to leave your workplace after you have a child. While I was head of legal in-house at a Japanese company, I struggled to find anyone who could come in for a few months or on a temporary basis when members of my team left.

I thought, there must be people who have had babies, who are looking after elderly relatives, or are on leave who could help me remotely, or come to the office for a few hours, but I couldn’t find that pool of talent. I think my business model would be attractive for women lawyers taking a break from full-time work – and men too, although parental leave is still mostly taken by women.

I think many inequalities, such as unequal pay, lie outside the legal profession because lawyers are astute and aware of what’s going on, so they pay pretty equally. There tends not to be the disparity you would most definitely see in other places in Japan. But then again, how many women are at those senior positions? It’s almost like a reward that they are there.

The statistics on female partners is extremely low and that is because motherhood forces them to leave the partnership track, and hinders their chance to secure leadership roles when they return. It’s a generalization, but I don’t think many of my community would dispute that.

Japan is certainly behind other countries in Asia. In terms of overall numbers, women account for less than 20% of all lawyers in Japan, although the levels are healthier in-house, where women make up 40% of the legal workforce.

Having male champions is so crucial for progress. Changes are happening but they are tiny, tiny steps often introduced by a few progressive companies and law firms. I’ve heard of cases where employers are talking openly about career planning for both men and women, but, particularly for women, taking into account the possibility of parental leave at some stage.

Without delving into personal circumstances, these employers are basically saying, ‘You have a place when you come back, and we want you back’. This kind of preparation, where someone is briefed while they are on leave, and supported in a systematic way when they return, is remarkable, firstly because employers are actually discussing it, and secondly because they seem to be implementing it.

Sharing these practices and success stories is vital. Companies, even traditional ones, are finding they can be flexible and innovative with their working models if they give it a go. Challenging people’s ideas is paramount.”

 


AUDRAY SOUCHE, DFDL, BANGKOK

Role models & representation

Why we need more women in leadership positions

Audray Souche is the country managing director of DFDL Thailand. She has worked in Asia since 2004, becoming a partner in 2014. “I was the only female partner at the firm out of 12, and frankly, being the only female partner was not making any real difference at the time,” she says. “Things started to progress positively later on, and we started to see a lot of positive changes happening. We now have a lot of regional and country female partners across our jurisdictions.”

For the past two years, Souche has sat on the firm’s board of management as one of its four directors. “My voice has become more distinguishable,” she says. “It’s a matter of proportion. I believe if you are here simply being one among many, as a token representative, it’s pointless. However, if you actually represent 20-25%, you have real agency to change a firm’s or company’s culture. It’s not merely about what is visible, but the actual part you have to play in the decision-making process.”

Audray Souche
Partner and Thailand managing director
DFDL, Bangkok

Souche believes women bring a different dimension to negotiations, governance and leadership. In terms of promoting lawyers, for example, she will “highlight fairness rather than just focusing on a quantitative assessment”, by analyzing a candidate’s history and all-round performance. “Men have a natural bias towards making assessments in financial or statistical terms. Women can add value by accounting for other important factors beyond purely financial metrics.

“I’m sometimes surprised by the way I’m listened to, and it’s not because I’m a woman, but perhaps because I’m presenting issues in a different manner,” says Souche. “That’s what I’m leveraging as the first woman in this position. It’s really about diversity. New approaches don’t necessarily take hold simply because you’re a woman. For instance, I have a political science background, so I am sensitive to geopolitics and intercultural matters. It’s who you are and the perspectives you bring to bear more than just your gender.”

For Souche, gender has never been a major challenge to overcome despite working in the male-dominated energy sector. “I’m a woman, but before that, I’m a foreigner,” she says. “It’s really secondary. It’s almost like being gender neutral, where being a foreigner prevails over my identity as a woman.” Souche is accustomed to attending meetings where men are in the majority. “Visually you feel the male prevalence because the power sector has historically been male-dominated. Nonetheless, this is changing and women are increasingly becoming more active in the energy sector in Thailand and Singapore.”

Souche has worked tirelessly to create an open dialogue to ensure that young women in her firm feel supported in their roles. Coaching from mentors and seniors, she says, is crucial to guiding juniors in a world where they may often have to work late, travel alone, or stay overnight in provinces or remote areas where due diligence needs to be performed. “You have to ensure that they feel comfortable and constantly nurture their sense of confidence and autonomy,” she says.

She encourages young female lawyers to go beyond excellence in the core legal competencies and strive to enhance their business acumen. “Women often want to implement what they’ve learned at law school, but they must also develop a curiosity and awareness beyond precedents, legal texts and legal techniques,” she says.

“It’s about gaining a deeper knowledge of particular sectors and grappling with the commercial realities of these sectors on a local, regional and global level. Having the capacity to talk confidently and knowledgeably about business matters is an invaluable skill in winning over clients and becoming a trusted and counted-upon adviser.”

 


KIM SAE YOUN, YULCHON, SEOUL

Alcohol, ambition and life at the bar

A former justice talks about client mistrust and South Korea’s drinking culture

“My family knew I always wanted to be a lawyer, so they were happy when I got into law school. My mum’s friend called to congratulate us, but quickly asked my mum, ‘How will you get her married?’

Back in my day, we had to go through the old Korean Bar, which was extremely difficult. The pass rate was 3%, so only 300 people passed each year. The situation has changed now, with 1,700-2,000 lawyers qualifying annually.

Kim Sae Youn with the family

After passing, we had to enrol in the Judicial Research & Training Institute (JRTI), run by the Korean Supreme Court, for two years. Once you get to that stage, you can’t fail. You are guaranteed to become a judge, prosecutor or lawyer.

At JRTI, there were 19 women out of 300. Everyone was good to us, no one tried to discriminate. We were considered colleagues and part of the alumni that would stay together.

I became a judge at 25 and served for seven years before joining private practice. One justice said that women judges should not take criminal cases because they don’t understand what happens when people get drunk, and so their penalties would be too harsh. It was a joke, but that kind of remark was allowed at the time. If the same justice made these jokes now, they would face a lot of trouble.

Nevertheless, while I sat at the bench, no one dared say anything against me based on gender, so I felt the bench defended me in some way.

Day one of my career in private practice was when I realised gender discrimination exists. I had to conduct a witness exam on a 60-year-old man, and when he walked in, he said, ‘Oh my god, she’s a woman. What will she know about the case?’ He was not a professional, sophisticated businessman, so I think he couldn’t help blurting it out. It was a dispute relating to an apartment complex and he was the head of the company managing the apartment. I spoke to him for an hour and convinced him that I knew the case better than the previous lawyer.

The culture of wining and dining with clients is very strong here in Korea. At that time there were no precedents for us to follow, so we thought, to be as successful as men, we had to drink as hard as them! For five years I drank just like any other male lawyer so my colleagues wouldn’t discriminate against me, and to avoid clients saying, ‘She can’t even drink!’

At some point, I thought if I kept drinking I wouldn’t be able to look after my home or do my work properly. I told my clients that I’d stop drinking for eight years until my younger son went to college. They found it amusing, but it was a time when people were used to the idea of mums being hands on in order for kids to go to a good college. So I stopped drinking socially, and devoted free weekends to my children. That’s when I developed a successful international arbitration practice.

I realised I needed courage. Telling everyone I was going to quit drinking was actually a reminder that I couldn’t go back. I think I was telling myself, ‘Don’t be afraid. You won’t lose your career’.”

 


PHUONG NGUYEN, ZICO LAW, HANOI

Empowered but still fighting

Women make up almost three-quarters of Vietnam’s workforce, but persisting stereotypes and male dominance of senior positions mean equality is still a work-in-progress

“With 72% of women in the workforce, Vietnam falls into the group of nations with the highest percentages of women in the labour pool. The country has also made tremendous strides in developing its legal system on gender equality by amending the constitution and passing the Law on Gender Equality. The constitution, which was amended in 2001, stipulates that ‘all citizens regardless of their sex have equal rights in all respects’ and that ‘any discrimination against women and violation of women’s dignity is prohibited’.

Despite their contribution to the national economy and legislative progress, women still encounter numerous barriers and challenges to employment equality. Although they constitute a large percentage of associates at law firms or legal functions in the private sector, women represent less than 30% of partners and managing partners. In short, female practitioners, and working women in general, are still encumbered by Vietnam’s traditional customs, which require women to handle family responsibilities while holding on to their careers.

Phuong Nguyen
Managing partner Vietnam
Zico Law, Hanoi

Although there has been a positive change in attitudes towards women in the past 30 years, the legal profession still faces some problems related to male dominance of senior positions. Women are often viewed as incapable of handling the same tasks as men, which allows male-directed inappropriate behaviour to thrive. In conformity with the long history of Confucian tradition, women are usually the primary caregivers in Vietnam, so they are given more ‘office housework’ and less access to prime job assignments.

When I was a junior associate, I was expected to be helpful and therefore tended to feel social pressure to volunteer for ‘office housework’. Firms are more likely to assign these tasks to women because they are more likely to agree to perform them.

This power imbalance, where women are relegated to menial tasks and lower positions of authority, has repercussions beyond securing key mandates and achieving seniority. Young junior lawyers can feel reluctant to raise complaints or issues about treatment they’ve been subjected to, including sexual harassment. In particular, senior partners who generate enormous revenues, have a strong client base or who are important to a firm, are protected.

Without doubt, firms can sweep misconduct by such partners under the rug. Since there are no formal or legal studies addressing the impact or scale of sexual harassment in Vietnam, it is difficult to combat and remains under-reported, deep-rooted and widespread. A lack of direct provisions within the existing labour code to effectively prohibit misconduct and protect victims, means many, embarrassed and afraid of losing their jobs, will stay silent.

Women also face a setback with regard to retirement rules. In the public justice system, or in-house at state-owned companies, men retire at 60, while women must retire at 55. Although it is not easy for a woman to successfully fulfil the duties of wife, mother and lawyer simultaneously, I never forget that family comes first. I keep in mind that lawyers who are role models have balance in their lives. People are unlikely to emulate a work-obsessed, ambition-driven lawyer whose family is an afterthought.”

 


REBECCA CHEW, RAJAH & TANN, SINGAPORE

Knowing your worth

Why women lawyers need tenacity, self-belief and a kind work culture to thrive

Rebecca Chew was the first woman to be appointed deputy managing director in Rajah & Tann’s long history. Chew moved to the firm in 1992, in search of an organization with a vision for the future and a healthy work-life balance.

“I remember my mother going to deliver my letter of acceptance to the firm and at 6pm the lights were out,” she says. “My mum was impressed because at my previous mid-sized firm, I was always the last one out of the office.”

Rebecca Chew
Deputy managing partner
Rajah & Tann, Singapore

Chew says Rajah & Tann, which had only 10 lawyers when she joined, was progressive for its time, viewing employees as members of the family. “Their philosophy resonated with a lot of lawyers at the firm. The managing partner would consider allowing heavily pregnant women to work half-days.”

While Chew benefited from this nurturing environment, juggling her responsibilities in the early years was still difficult. “We grow up with a lot of self-doubt and views about ourselves as Asian women. We have family duties, we have to take care of our husbands, parents, children, etc., in addition to our career. So there was a lot of struggle initially, but when I won my first high court trial, I thought, ‘I can actually do this’.”

Chew was also buoyed by her peers. “My male colleagues always say I’m the tenacious one – I have that reputation and I was lucky to have supportive colleagues.”

Chew believes Singapore’s legal profession has moved in the right direction for women. “We are seeing more women studying law and entering the profession. The challenge for us is ensuring their career path and development so they hit the senior levels at the firm.”

Since 2009, Chew has been in charge of human resources at Rajah & Tann, winning the firm accolades for work-life excellence. Flexible and tailored work arrangements, health and wellness workshops, overseas training, and sporting events are all part of policies designed to look after and retain lawyers facing challenges at different stages of their life.

“I tell my colleagues, don’t be discouraged if you face a setback,” says Chew. “I say to new mothers, if you have a baby, it is not the end of your career if you decide to take some time off for your family. If you take the scenic route for a year, it doesn’t mean you can’t reach equity, or jump back onto the expressway. You just need to be patient and realistic. Some may be ahead of you, but if you are persistent, you can catch up.”

Perseverance is essential, not only to reach seniority, but also in the early stages of one’s career. Chew experienced client objections to her leading a case on account of her gender, and she felt that some clients may prefer men to work on contentious mandates. But in many ways, Chew felt fortunate to have been given the opportunities to develop her craft. “I believe my boss thought I had a different value proposition – better soft skills and empathy. I remember being assigned to represent two elderly ladies as my boss assumed I’d connect more effectively with them.”

Chew’s advice to women facing unconscious bias is to remain steadfast and focus on your goal. “I wanted to develop my skills. I wasn’t concerned with any unconscious bias against me. Young women shouldn’t be disturbed by the fact that they aren’t getting the best type of work, or the most exciting briefs. You may be thrown crumbs, but you can get strong eating crumbs.”

 


IRA EDDYMURTHY, SSEK LEGAL CONSULTANTS, JAKARTA

A view from the top

How Jakarta’s senior female officers are inspiring young women lawyers

Ira Eddymurthy has 30 years of experience advising clients on Indonesia’s complex regulatory environment. “Men don’t control business law, commerce or the government in Indonesia,” she says. “Women are well respected, and they have long established their role in the Indonesian legal community. A lot of law firms, such as SSEK, Hadiputranto Hadinoto & Partners and Kartini Muliardi & Rekan, were set up by women.”

Although most litigation firms are dominated by men, they don’t necessarily dominate the court system, says Eddymurthy. “It doesn’t prevent women from practising in court. Most women choose to have corporate-commercial careers, not that we don’t do litigation, but it isn’t our bread and butter. And that’s a choice made by us.” And while the country still has some way to go in promoting women lawyers up the ranks, Eddymurthy says the number of women appointed to partnership positions is significantly rising.

Ira Eddymurthy
Founding partner
SSEK Legal Consultants, Jakarta

Much of this progress is down to the increasing presence of women in government roles. “We have so many women at the ministerial level and under the president,” she says.

“Our finance minister, Sri Mulyani Indrawati, is incredible. Women are given a lot of opportunity, and seeing females assume such leadership positions inspires women to pursue a number of careers. They really look up to ministers and women representatives in parliament.”

When seeking legal advice, the Indonesian government appears unconcerned about gender, although historically, things may have been different. “I don’t think the government looks to men more than women … maybe they did in the past,” says Eddymurthy. “Now they just respect whoever is the running the transaction at a law firm. There are no real hurdles for us – we have the same opportunities as men.”

Lawyers working in-house are also likely to benefit from a meritocratic approach, although Eddymurthy notes that this may not extend to state-owned entities, where women may be at a slight disadvantage due to their low numbers. “There is still a difference – not of gender per se – but in men taking more decision-making roles, probably because there are simply more men in the workforce there.”

For Eddymurthy, one key hurdle remains. “The biggest challenge I’ve run into is the social perception that women should prioritize their role as housewife and caretaker.” However, she remains optimistic, believing that “young Indonesian female lawyers will have a bright future as long as they’re willing to fight for their dreams”. In addition, she is keen to see a higher representation of women in the judiciary.

“I would like to see more women judges in the Supreme Court, because there are only four out of 46. We need at least 40%.” Indonesia’s justice system could also profit from those with industry experience, she says. “I think experienced professionals who have retired should move into the judiciary to contribute to our system. Most Supreme Court judges are elevated from their earlier role as justices.”

 


ARFIDEA SARASWATI, AKSET LAW, JAKARTA

Moulded by matriarchy

How upbringing and environment can shift perceptions of gender norms

“I was recently invited at an Asia-Pacific lawyers’ network meeting to lead two sessions on diversity, inclusion and unconscious bias in our legal profession. The next day, I was asked to lead a discussion about equality for women in law firms.

It took me a few days to accept those offers because, I wondered, why are we talking about this? Don’t we naturally do this? I’m here and we have so many female legal professionals in Indonesia. Women have built some of the country’s biggest corporate law firms and they’re still very influential today. I was confused. What would I say at these sessions?

Arfidea Saraswati
Founding partner
Akset Law, Jakarta

I grew up in West Sumatra, with a different background and upbringing to women from other parts of Indonesia. Somehow women there are more outspoken and expressive; we’re so different from Java, where women can be self-restrained, very quiet and submissive. Only three hours from our hometown in Jakarta, there are still places where girls are unable to study, and forced to get married at 13.

I come from a matriarchal family, where the women rock in our society. Since I was little, in April each year, we would celebrate Raden Adjeng Kartini, the emancipation figure in Indonesia for feminists from the 1900s. Again, I used to think, what’s the big deal? I was very lucky to have been raised in this way.

Most of my best friends are very strong, forthright women. Like them, I never felt disadvantaged in my career. I’ve always worked in traditionally male-dominated sectors, handling energy, resources, mining and infrastructure transactions. It was common for me to be the only female in the room, surrounded by men who were my father’s age.

At times I felt a lack of confidence, more because of my age, but never because of my gender. It doesn’t help to look young. Sometimes I felt the need to casually say, ‘In the last 23 years of my practice …’ just to remind them of my credibility and qualifications.

It’s not that there have never been any problems. When I was much younger, I did experience attempts of sexual harassment when a client, counterparty, or even a government officer would ask for my mobile number, inquire whether I was busy on Saturday night, invite me to have dinner alone, or to meet at their hotel.

When you’re in the first year of your practice and someone asks you such questions, you don’t immediately recognize what is happening. You wonder if this is part of client-building and maintenance. Of course, after talking to your seniors, you realize this is inappropriate and learn how to manage such situations.

I realized early on that the sense of empowerment I enjoyed was not necessarily the norm. During meetings, I wondered why women held back. If given an opportunity to speak, why weren’t the women speaking? I saw the same thing over and over again for years. My friends and I always seemed loud and opinionated in comparison.

I don’t think ours was the only brand of leadership. Some of my friends with a quieter character have also become successful seniors. However, at our firm, we encourage everyone to be expressive, share their thoughts and compete in a positive way. If you’re subdued, you may lose out on opportunities for growth and success. But if you’re ambitious and want to go the extra mile, you’ll reach your goals.”

 


HANIM HAMZAH, ZICO LAW, SINGAPORE (ASEAN)

One region, different realities

Tackling unconscious bias should be a major priority to improve gender equality and diversity across Asia

Hanim Hamzah has worked for 22 years across Asia in Malaysia, Japan, Indonesia and Singapore. “I think Asia is very lucky to have a high participation of female lawyers in the legal profession,” says Hamzah. “If you consider the 10 ASEAN countries, the more developed economies – Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and Singapore – are ahead in terms of combating gender imbalances, while in the five emerging economies – Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos and Brunei – there’s still a big gap in the participation of women in business, professional and legal services. A lot more work needs to be done.”

As a result of these differences, Zico’s diversity initiative has several prongs, “because you can’t apply one strategy across offices,” says Hamzah. “Some will need more talks, training and capacity-building than others.”

Hanim Hamzah
Regional managing partner
Zico Law, Singapore (ASEAN)

Zico’s legal staff is currently made up of 57% of female partners, and the legal network has also launched a “She Advocates” campaign.

“Some of the partners were reluctant to embrace it at first, asking why we need such an initiative, because we already have a lot of female representation,” says Hamzah. “We even have legislation. For example, in Indonesia, women must make up 20% of publicly listed boards, and in Singapore 30% representation is mandated.

“But in my view, if it was about merit, we wouldn’t still be having this conversation. There is a patriarchal society of men sponsoring men to get ahead, and we need to address this.”

In Hamzah’s experience, male dominance still exists even in more advanced economies, particularly in countries such as Japan and Indonesia. “Indonesia is very patriarchal, and there are still a lot of issues. Men are often key decision makers because of traditions associated with Islamic practice.”

Hamzah provides an example of how partners handle a due diligence to be conducted on the outskirts of Jakarta, or on another island. “Immediately, they will discount all female lawyers and assign the job to a man because of safety issues, or assumptions about travelling alone,” she says. “Women need to be given the opportunity to accept or reject a task. You can’t just assume it fits a particular gender. She Advocates creates awareness about these issues, discussing unconscious bias, the gender pay gap, work-life integration, and how to share best practices.”

Such biases are also prevalent in Japan. “Definitely Japan has a long way to go,” says Hamzah. “As a woman, you are not always invited to meetings, you are expected to pour the tea … all of that is unconscious, or maybe even conscious, bias.” She says everyone should take an unconscious bias test. “We always think we’re fine, we’re not biased at all, but then you’d be surprised. Taking the test gives you a chance to reflect and do better.”

Realization of these biases is crucial for managers at law firms. During an annual appraisal process, Hamzah noticed marked differences in behaviour between male and female partners. “The woman partner would come in and say, ‘Thanks, it’s been a great year’, etc. The male partner would come in with an Excel sheet stating, ‘This is how much I billed, this is how much of a bonus I’m entitled to get’. They really fight for their own.

“It’s essential to educate partners on appraising junior lawyers so they award fair compensation, rather than being swayed by a very aggressive male lawyer who insists on a 20% increase, versus a female lawyer who is equally deserving, but may not push for appropriate recognition. We coach both the appraiser and the appraisee, so everyone knows the KPIs are not based just on financial billings and collections, but also on holistic performance measures.”

 


TANYA KHAN, ACC AUSTRALIA AND ASIA-PACIFIC

Clocking up the numbers

Women are rapidly becoming more visible in-house across Australia and New Zealand, but what challenges remain?

Tanya Khan, the vice president and managing director for Australia and Asia-Pacific at the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC), works with organizations to encourage gender equality in-house. The ACC’s initiatives include the development of a Diversity and Inclusion Charter for in-house teams, measuring and reporting on gender distinction, and celebrating companies that have achieved high female representation across all levels in-house.

“When I started in this profession over 20 years ago, I commenced in private practice. After a couple of years I moved into a top-tier law firm. I thought I had made it; that I was well positioned to head down the prized partnership path.

Tanya Khan
Vice president and managing director
ACC Australia and Asia-Pacific

It soon became clear that those at the end of the path were exclusively male, working hours that prohibited them from enjoying their family or social lives. Success was determined by hours billed and revenue generated. I had no female partners to model, and realized that if partnership looked like this, it was not a future I wanted.

I found my place in the profession in-house. The general counsel in my first in-house role was a strategic and formidable woman who gave me the opportunity to revise my career aspirations and renew my love of the law. Fast-forward 15 years, and our industry has been transformed through commoditization, specialization, innovation and technology. However, certain hallmarks persist.

The ANZ [Australia and New Zealand] in-house legal sector continues to outperform corporate Australia and the broader legal profession when it comes to gender diversity. There is now a 50% chance that corporate legal departments in ANZ are led by women, up from 38% in 2012. However, men are still more likely to lead in-house teams at publicly-listed organizations, where there is a higher turnover and more employees.

Meanwhile, women comprise only 16% of equity partners at Australian firms, and 33% of non-equity partners, while only 22.7% of women are represented on ASX200 boards against a 30% target. Only 10.2% of senior counsel at the New South Wales Bar are women.

The gender pay gap remains significant. It is heartening to see some firms and organizations committed to addressing these issues, but the improvements in gender parity since I started my career are simply not sufficient. With women making up 64% of law school graduates across the country, however, future ratios will shift, and they must.

Paying attention to perceptions and expectations of work-life balance will help law departments and law firms attract, retain and advance female lawyers who have the power to positively influence business metrics. Flexibility and a unique approach to individual situations could help retain talented women lawyers, ensuring a vastly different future-state for our law graduates where gender parity is concerned.”

 


BENEDICTA DU-BALADAD, BDB LAW, MANILA

A greater purpose

Women continue to be present in higher ranks of the legal profession across the Philippines

“I have been asked many times how I broke the glass ceiling in the legal profession to get to where I am today. My answer was, ‘There was no glass ceiling to break. And if there was, I would have broken it fiercely so that other women behind me could rise up easily.’

Benedicta Du-Baladad
Founding partner and CEO
BDB Law, Manila

Thinking about it now, maybe there was a ceiling, but I was working too hard to even notice it. And perhaps, unconsciously, I did break a big hole in it.

Men used to dominate the legal profession in the Philippines. But this is no longer the case thanks to the men who themselves opened the door to welcome, nurture and encourage women to become equal partners in the profession.

Today, women are on par with men. Women lawyers continue to win important roles including top posts in government, such as the speakership in congress and the chief justice of the highest court. Men applaud these achievements and willingly acknowledge the potential of their female counterparts.

In my case I had fears, too, when I started practising. But I saw an opportunity, a door that men hate to enter, a practice of law that requires an appreciation of detail and good analytical skills in numbers. The practice of tax law.

I used my expertise as an accountant, auditor and a former official of the tax authority as a springboard. I concentrated on mastering this field and participated in thought leadership on controversial and important issues that could have a bearing on the resolution of a tax issue, shape the tax practice, or lead to the adoption of changes in tax policies.

I did this consistently and passionately. Admittedly, it took a lot of hard work, determination, strength, smartness and focus until I was eventually noticed.

I speak, teach and write about taxation. Taxation is what kept me awake at night and alive by day. I burned the midnight oil most nights and was grateful to earn accolades such as ‘tax expert’ and ‘tax guru’.

I then realized I had a bigger role to play in society. While it is true that tax law is my bread and butter, I knew that I had to elevate it to a higher plane where money became secondary to a bigger undertaking; something that was nationalistic, something patriotic: inclusive taxation.

I pray for a tax system that serves as a catalyst for inclusive growth, one that reduces, rather than widens the gap between rich and poor; one that propels rather than stifles the growth of the economy; one that is simple, equitable and fair.

This is what I have been pushing for over the past five years. It is something I will continue to do with greater intensity as I feel the urgency and hear the call of the times.”

 


MEALY KHIEU, SOKSIPHANA & ASSOCIATES, PHNOM PENH

Pol Pot, hardship created an iron resolve

Tough Khmer socio-political climate made for resilience and character

Mealy Khieu never wanted to be a lawyer. After marrying Sok Siphana – a former Commerce Secretary of State in the Cambodian government and current managing partner at SokSiphana & Associates – Khieu worked as an office manager at another law firm.

Eventually, she decided to study law, and qualified in 2004, beginning her career as a freelance consultant so she could balance work and family life. When Sok was appointed to the United Nations in Switzerland, Khieu quit her job to become a full-time homemaker for four years.

Mealy Khieu
Partner
Soksiphana & Associates, Phnom Penh

When they returned to Cambodia, the pair decided to relaunch Sok’s firm. Khieu later added to her credentials with a Masters in Law, which Sok encouraged her to pursue. “My husband was very supportive. He appreciated higher education and believed in giving back to society. He never thought I should stay at home.”

But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. “I always tell the younger generation, don’t just look at me as a snapshot,” says Khieu. “I went through hardship, I went through the genocide regime, and experienced communism. I didn’t get to do what I wanted.”

Khieu says she was lucky to have a supportive and progressive family. Her mother, who despite growing up in a very conservative society where education was reserved for sons, was strongly committed to educating Khieu to give her a bright future. “Both my parents believed in the importance of education,” says Khieu.

“My father would say, ‘If I give you a lot of property, one day it could be ruined or stolen, but if I give you an education, it will help you for the rest of your life.’ I saw this during the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot’s reign; everyone who had a lot of assets was left with nothing.”

Khieu believes the strife of living through such an oppressive regime was character-building. “Somehow, after going through something like that, you feel resilient to a lot of challenges. It drives you to think positively and take things in your stride.”

Khieu may have beaten the odds to become one of 300 women lawyers among a total of 1,000 in Cambodia, but some cast doubt on her abilities. “Sometimes when you negotiate with a party from a big company, people don’t want to deal with you,” she says.

“I experienced that a few times until I developed thick skin. But it’s not a bad thing. If you don’t get a few scars, you won’t work hard. If you don’t jump into the water, you won’t be able to swim. I always tell my female associates, if someone looks down upon you, use it to push yourself to work harder, to learn and know more than your male colleagues.”

Khieu also believes aspiring lawyers would do well to deepen their knowledge of the local and regional business and political landscape. This, she says, can start at an early age. “Most people only focus on hard skills and I think that’s partly down to the parents’ culture of wanting to see A grades. You have to give your kids varied opportunities.

“For example, in other countries when you’re in high school, it’s common to have a job, say at a coffee shop. But not in Cambodia. Parents are overprotective and that puts kids in a hard position later. We should create a movement to change that mindset.”

Most importantly, Khieu emphasizes the need for self-belief. “We have to push women to invest in themselves, know their worth, set life goals, and be unafraid of making mistakes. Women are so fearful of failure and social judgments. We have to overcome this.”

 


LIN SHI, ACC HONG KONG

Shattering stereotypes

Acknowledging injustice is the first step towards fixing gender inequity

“In my experience in the US, women judged me more harshly than men. They projected certain attitudes on me that may or may not have existed. Early on in one of my performance reviews, I was told I received great feedback for my work all around, but there were some negative comments about my attitude from women who felt I wasn’t warm and approachable enough.

I was young at the time, it was my first job, and I was very disappointed and confused. I grew up in the US and, for the most part, gender roles had become less well defined. It was normal for both parents to work, and my parents had not impressed specific gender stereotypes on me. I thought, if this is the way I would be judged, how would it affect my career?

Lin Shi
President
ACC Hong Kong

Fortunately I changed jobs, and I never get similar feedback so unanimously. What I noticed, though, in the US and in Asia, is the asymmetrical way that ‘personality flaws’ can be compensated. If a man was considered rude or intimidating, people would say ‘I know he’s rough around the edges, but he’s a rainmaker! His performance and work product can make up for all that’. For men, it is ancillary. For women, it’s an integral part of the package. People will say, ‘I know she brings in clients, but she’s so unapproachable’. As a woman, you are expected to be welcoming.

In Hong Kong, there’s a lot of new wealth. Everyone loves a self-made story so the mentality is ‘If I can do it, you can do it’. Women at the top don’t appreciate that their exceptionalism is not due solely to their hard work. There are plenty of women who are as accomplished as men, but weren’t given the same opportunities. I talk to senior executives and they say ‘I view men and women equally’. They believe their decisions are based solely on merit and they don’t think unconscious bias exists.

You must recognize there’s a problem in order to fix it. Why are women in the minority? Why do they comprise 10% of your firm’s partnership when they are more than 50% of your first-year class? The answer will be ‘It’s their choice’. There’s an absolute lack of accountability.

I’d like to see programmes incentivizing men to do their share because until that happens, the work will fall upon women. The numbers bear themselves out. Females in senior partner roles are exceptional, and they are disproportionately likely not to have children.

While I believe that you should call out the injustices, if you are in a junior position, you have to be smart about doing so, because it’s you against the system. You need to find a mentor or sponsor to help you. Once you are in a position to change things, then you reform. You can’t beat the odds, then sit back and say, ‘good for me’. You have a responsibility to improve the system for future generations.

A lot of my staff are local Chinese, and I feel it’s important to show them that there are different social norms than the ones they grew up with. Sometimes I exaggerate and I know I’m being dramatic, but I’m trying to make a point. I normally wear a suit to meetings, but in the office, I don’t do the power suit, three-inch heels or perfect hair, nails and makeup all the time. I do that deliberately because I don’t want to conform to what my colleagues’ idea of what a powerful woman looks like. Of course you need to maintain a professional image, but it’s about how you articulate your thoughts, how you engage with others, and treating people with respect. There’s no need to fake it till you make it. You’ve made it. Now focus on making things better for others.”

 


ZIA MODY, AZB & PARTNERS, MUMBAI

Blood, sweat and tears

Struggle, sacrifice, success and the quest for smart retention strategies

“For women in India’s legal profession, there are two parts. The state of affairs for women in litigation is still quite woeful. You have very few female senior counsel who can compete with the best of men in that sense. I don’t see that glass ceiling being broken quickly, and that’s a function of many things.

One is the stage on which you have to act, day after day, in an audience full of men, and before judges who are mostly men. It’s pretty exhausting, and however stressful my day is today, it’s nothing compared to what I experienced in court. I felt watched, judged, diffident, nervous, and a much deeper sense of loss if I lost a case. The sheer time that it sucks out of you mentally makes it very difficult.

Zia Mody
Managing partner
AZB & Partners, Mumbai

In the M&A and non-litigation space, women are far better off. Every intake by law firms comprises 50-60% more women, so the level playing field is good to start with. It is up to us as employers and mentors to make sure we retain these women because we simply cannot afford to lose talent.

When I started our boutique of 12 lawyers, I didn’t face discrimination from foreign clients who were coming to me because they came recommended by my foreign counterparts. In some ways, I was gender neutral. For the first five to eight years, I catered exclusively to foreign clients because I knew I would get more money. I charged dollar rates, grew the balance sheet and the practice, hired better and paid more. It was an instinctive move.

I earned a market reputation for understanding the nuances of foreign exchange law, company law, being tactical and being good at the negotiating table. I never went out and pitched myself to Indian clients, so when they came to us, it sounded exciting, and I thought, why not?

Personally, I don’t think I had a work-life balance. That’s the truth. I always wonder whether my children will be honest with me, but I think I really let them down sometimes when they needed me. I have a fabulous husband who was always there because he wanted to be.

I found it necessary to work so hard because I thought if I wasn’t the best every day and every time, I would be laughed out of the courtroom as a woman. It was a lot of self-induced stress, bordering on paranoia, with an inner dialogue that said, ‘I can’t lose, I can’t look stupid’. That took away so much time from my family.

After I started the boutique, the individual stress that I took to court disappeared. But starting a new shop with 12 people as a youngster with no experience carries its own stress: How to get work, how never to make a mistake, how to make sure you are able to battle the traditional law firms with your quality, your responsiveness, etc. I would probably tell my younger self to be a little more balanced, but I don’t think I would have achieved what I had done without sacrificing my time.

India is in the space now where if you have talent, there is just so much work, you don’t want to let anyone get away. Mentoring is a key part of retention. The vast mentoring today is still in the hands of men, simply because there are fewer women at the top.

Male mentoring needs to be more meaningful. We need a mutual opening up. It’s a combination of the male boss actually initiating the conversation when there are obvious times in a woman’s life where she’s going to need some flexibility.

They have to raise these issues rather than wait to be asked, or never asked. Women must also understand that if you don’t ask, you won’t get. That conversation has to be one where the woman is comfortable speaking without shying away.”

 


GRACE YEOH, SHEARN DELAMORE, KUALA LUMPUR

Management & motherhood

Flexible working patterns are still a pipe dream in Malaysia’s legal sector

Grace Yeoh was Shearn Delamore’s first female managing partner in the firm’s 100-year history. She has watched Malaysia’s legal profession evolve over three decades while climbing the ranks and raising five children.

Law was a male-dominated profession when Yeoh began her career. “There were not many women at the top, especially senior partners,” she says. “There was an unconscious bias against women, but merely because most of the senior lawyers were men. We had around 20 partners at the time and only one was a woman. Now we have more female than male partners. So it’s been a gradual journey. It hasn’t happened overnight.”

Grace Yeoh
Partner
Shearn Delamore, Kuala Lumpur

Today, women no longer face such bias and in fact make up the majority of junior lawyers entering the profession. “Even when I go to meetings with clients, a lot of the clients’ representatives are female. Many more women have gone on to tertiary education and joined the professions.”

Yeoh stepped down from her position as managing partner in January, and also left her role on the managing committee, a position she held for 17 years. Becoming managing partner, she says, was significant “because it broke the mould and changed perceptions of who someone in that position should be. I don’t think what I did as managing partner had anything to do with gender. It was more about trying to modernize the profession and the way we do things, perhaps with a more corporate approach to running the business.”

While women lawyers enjoy more opportunities today, retention continues to be a challenge. “It’s the same issue worldwide. A lot of women fall by the wayside after having kids, not because of ability, but because of a difficulty in managing time and all their obligations. That is always a problem in a woman’s career and it extends beyond the legal profession.”

Yeoh is in favour of tailoring careers for women in a different way to men, but says that current options have failed to take off in Malaysia. “A lot of women have tried it, but it hasn’t worked out and there are various reasons why. Firstly, we don’t have law firms that are big enough to allow people to take time off and have others jumping in to fill the vacuum.

“Secondly, clients here are unused to people working part-time or being unavailable during office hours. So there needs to be a little bit of education there, and organizations also have to develop to a size that can accommodate flexible working patterns.”

Yeoh was lucky to have a lot of family support when raising her own children but acknowledges the struggle many new mothers face. “There were a lot of logistics involved! I didn’t sleep very much for many years. I wanted to make sure I was there for my kids, otherwise, why bother having them? My weekends were completely full, taking the kids to classes and activities.

“The way I saw it, I worked seven days a week; two full-time days for the family, and five full-time days for work. It’s quite fulfilling, but it’s tough. So I completely understand when people say they can’t manage and they want to give up work. But I think what’s important is whether they are given the opportunity to come back when they are ready.”

Managing expectations is critical at this juncture. “Taking lawyers back is not a problem. It’s also about whether lawyers are able to pick up where they’ve left off. And the recognition that if you’re out of the work system for a few years, you can’t expect to come back and be slotted into the same position, or be promoted at the same time as your peers who stayed on in your absence. Some women do return but they don’t stay very long and find they are unable to readjust.

“I’m quite lucky, I never burned out. It wasn’t a question of sitting down, moaning and groaning. I knew what I wanted, how I’d make it work, and ensured I did it to the best of my ability.”

 


FAY ZHOU, LINKLATERS, BEIJING

Applying best practice

How a supportive workplace makes partnership possible for new mothers

Fay Zhou worked at China’s Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM) for eight years and completed a stint at O’Melveny & Myers before moving to Linklaters in Beijing as a partner and head of its China competition practice.

In Zhou’s view, women in China’s legal profession enjoy a fair degree of equal opportunities. “I wouldn’t say there’s no discrimination, but there isn’t much compared to Japan and Korea, for example, where there’s a glass ceiling and it’s still unusual to see women become managers or hold senior positions,” she says. “At least that’s the view among older generations in those countries. In China, there’s a general understanding that women should work and can move into senior positions.”

Fay Zhou
Partner & head of China competition practice
Linklaters, Beijing

In all her roles, Zhou has faced little or no discrimination. “A lot of my clients are quite senior female lawyers in their organizations. Even in government, the relatively senior officials I dealt with were also female. At MOFCOM we had a lot of female colleagues and the deputy minister back then was also a woman supervising the enforcement of anti-monopoly and fair trade policies. Of course, it was still rare to see female managers; there were more men. But I was lucky to have the deputy minister as a role model.”

Linklaters offered Zhou a partnership position on two occasions; once when she was pregnant, and the second time after the birth of her child. While the offer was tempting, Zhou toyed with the idea of going in-house with the knowledge that partnership would mean added responsibilities. Encouragement from Theresa Ma, the China managing partner at the time, and reassurance that Zhou’s family would participate in childcare, convinced Zhou to accept the position. “I wanted to show my baby girl how women could pursue successful careers, instead of having to give up on opportunities because of motherhood.”

Her own experience and Linklaters’ agile working policy has also benefited other new mothers who wish to return to work. “When I joined Linklaters, there were already two female partners, one of whom just had a daughter. I then had pregnant women in my own team, and I knew when they might need more time with family. I gave them recommendations about working from home and managing their time because I understood their predicament. More women in senior positions would definitely improve the situation.”

While attitudes at international law firms are changing, the experience of women at local law firms can be very different. “If we look at the vast majority of local firms, issues of flexible work arrangements and unequal pay may still exist,” says Zhou.

China’s cultural norms also still dictate that women must shoulder the burden of domestic responsibility in addition to work, admits Zhou. “The cultural perception of women and the view that they should assume more, or even full, family responsibility compared to men, is the biggest challenge in China.”

Sharing best practices could change this. “There was an initiative led by the British Embassy to promote the working status of women in China,” says Zhou. “Companies shared their experience of childcare support … so these initiatives really help. It’s not just about promoting equality but changing practice.”

 


ALELI ANGELA QUIRINO, ACCRALAW, MANILA

Family ties no barrier to discrimination

The bar is set high for female lawyers, even the nieces of presidents

I have been a lawyer for 34 years but I became a lawyer at the age of 40, inspiring other women to take up law as a mid-life career. I was prompted by my father to take up law and leave my equestrian world. I come from a family of lawyers. My father Antonio was a lawyer, first serving as a fiscal and then a judge. His oldest brother, Ernesto belonged to the first group of Filipinos sent by the government to the US (they were called the pensionados) to study law. Another brother, Elpidio, also a lawyer, was a former president of the Philippines. And the brother he followed, Jose, also a lawyer, co-founded a school that eventually became a university, which included a college of law.

Aleli Angela Quirino
Of counsel, IP & special projects
Accralaw, Manila

I focus on intellectual property and I have served as president and chairman of the Intellectual Property Association of the Philippines (IPAP), the recognized national group of IP practitioners. I am a Councilor with the Asian Patent Attorneys Association (APAA) and an exco Member of the Association Internationale pour La Protection de Propriete Intellectuelle (AIPPI). Until recently I was also the president of the ASEAN Intellectual Property Association.

The Philippines is really a matriarchal society at heart. Before, women were content to be behind the scenes, knowing that we were the real decision makers. Now, women are more upfront and take their rightful place. We had and still have brave articulate women in the Supreme Court, and we have had two women presidents.

In 1985, when I became a lawyer, the glass ceiling was in play, but at ACCRA I was always treated equally. They talk about firms where mundane work and social tasks were assigned to the women. But in my environment we were treated equally. At one time, five out of the firm’s then six departments were headed by women partners.

There were challenges to being a female lawyer, which included first being listened to, and second being taken seriously and accepted. I remember that in the first criminal case assigned to me involving estafa (malversation), I was asked by the Fiscal where my lawyer was.

I didn’t know which offended me more – to be mistaken as the accused or not to be identified as a lawyer! All 4 feet 10.5 inches of me stood up and proudly proclaimed “I am the counsel!”

I also recall having initially a difficult time in getting a Japanese client to accept that I was the head of the legal team. It got to the point where I asked the Japanese client to leave the room with me for a quick chat because he was addressing all his comments to the Pinkerton male private investigator attending the meeting with us.

After that I became his favorite persona! But from women practitioners I meet at international conferences I attend, I am told that in some other jurisdictions, women need to work hard to earn the respect of men.

Before there were fewer women in law practice, but the numbers are increasing. When I was in law school, the student ratio was about 50/50 male and female, whereas now in the Philippines the ratio is about 70/30 in favour of women. But law school faculties, though, are still dominated by men.

And in many law firms the managing partners are men. In ACCRA, I am proud to say that we have had two women co-managing partners, and the current co-managing partner is a lady partner. Some 30% of the partners in the firm are women, and firmwide, 52% of the lawyers are women.

The woman’s job is definitely more difficult because she is juggling home and work. I’m not married so I have more time to do my work, but I can see the struggle for other women – and for Philippine women family always comes first.

So, in that sense, this is a factor that hampers the career paths of many bright female minds. The big difference comes in the billable hours. Women tend to have less hours because they have home commitments.

To young women aspiring to a legal career, I say: Be yourself; know your law; stand your ground; be gentle but assertive, not pushy but neither docile; be fair, kind and God–fearing; be true to yourself; be loyal to your firm; be focused; and learn from your mentors.