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.

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