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