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.

Blood, sweat and tears

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

Zia Mody, Managing partner, AZB & Partners, Mumbai

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Zia Mody

“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.

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.”

Knowing your worth

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

Rebecca Chew, Deputy managing partner, Rajah & Tann, Singapore

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Rebecca Chew

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.”

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.”

Creating a nurturing ecosystem

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

Jagriti Bhattacharyya, Chief counsel, Thomson Reuters, Mumbai

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Jagriti Bhattacharyya

“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.

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.”

Shattering stereotypes

Acknowledging injustice is the first step towards fixing gender inequity

Lin Shi, President, ACC Hong Kong

women lawyers
Lin Shi

“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?

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.”

Clocking up the numbers

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

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

women lawyers
Tanya Khan

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.

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.”