Senior women lawyers across Asia share their personal stories of success, strategy, struggle and loss, all towards a more inclusive legal profession. Putro Harnowo reports

The legal profession has long been subject to criticism for an entrenched “boys’ club” mentality, but recent moves from multinational firms such as Linklaters, Freshfields and Herbert Smith Freehills to elect women lawyers to lead their global operations is surely a sea change. The question is, will such progression globally signal the beginning of a broader leap forward within Asia’s complex legal and cultural ecosystems?

Many studies have found that gender and ethnic diversity are good for business and decision-making. McKinsey & Company, in a 2020 report titled “Diversity wins: How inclusion matters” found that the top quarter of gender-diverse executive teams was 25% more likely to contribute above-average profitability than the least-diverse ones. Companies where more than 30% of their executives are women are more likely to outperform those with fewer women executives, or none at all. Many reports also note a slow improvement in the figures towards inclusivity.

Yet women remain underrepresented at the top of leadership. Although the number of women running Fortune 500 companies hit a record of 37 last year, and that number continues to grow, it still only represents 7.4% of the businesses compiled annually by the magazine. In India’s legal profession the gender disparity is no better.

Rebecca Mammen John, a senior advocate at the Supreme Court of India, notes that many women lawyers are significantly recognised for their skills and legal acumen, and have even expanded into hitherto male-only practice domains, but stereotypes and bias remain intact.

“Courts have become accustomed to seeing women excel in the legal field,” she says. “However, sexism and misogyny continue to exist in the way male colleagues treat their female counterparts. Young lawyers are often subjected to comments about their appearance that tend to overshadow their professional abilities and standing.”

Elsewhere in Asia, a similar picture emerges.

“In Taiwan, women account for 45% of the population with postgraduate degrees,” says Jaclyn Tsai, co-founder of Lee Tsai & Partners in Taipei. “However, there is a difference between men and women in leadership and entrepreneurial positions. Managing partners and founders at law firms are still predominantly male, which is the same in other industries, where women account for just 8% of the CEOs in Taiwan.”

Still, as more women join the industry, Lorraine Lee, general counsel at health and security services firm International SOS in Singapore, believes gender equality is no longer a pipe dream. She started out without a female role model in her company, because there were none, and with male colleagues discouraging her career options. She succeeded despite their efforts.

“We are definitely moving in the right direction towards gender parity, and having an equal number of male and female law graduates is a very good start, but it is just the beginning,” she says. “Achieving gender equality requires leadership in all parts of society and industry, from people like ourselves.”

Charmayne Ong, head of the intellectual property and technology, media and telecoms practices at Skrine in Malaysia, argues there will not be a quick fix for gender disparity, but the progress taking place cannot be ignored.

“In my view, attitudes towards women in the legal industry have evolved significantly, and discrimination, whether gender-related or otherwise, is generally not acceptable, at least in my workplace.” She also admits that socio-economic mores and norms in Asia still play a substantial role in creating even more expectations on women’s role as “superwomen”.

Breaking prejudice

Older women lawyers who have made a significant contribution to the growth of law are often targeted and labelled as “aggressive”, conveniently forgetting that the space inside courts is adversarial. The advent of powerful, brilliant women in the profession has only highlighted the insecurity of male lawyers.

Naomi Koshi, a partner at Miura & Partners in Tokyo, Japan, was bewildered that 50-60% of Japanese women left the workforce after their first child because they could not find a nursery. “Almost always, it would be mothers who quit their jobs, not fathers,” she says.

“Japanese women had to choose between having a job or children. I decided to try to change this situation. I believed we should be able to have both a job and a family, and not be forced to quit our jobs just because we have children.”

That was what drove Koshi to run for mayor of Otsu city, where she eventually improved the childcare system during her two terms of service. Although her policy has started to gain traction across the country, there remains much room for improvement.

Byun Ok Sook, a partner at Shin & Kim in Seoul, Korea, sees more female partners working as leaders of their teams, based on their achievements – although they may need to work harder than their male counterparts. In many cases, clients tend to select male lawyers when faced with two genders.

However, this may be set to change with the current generation more open to gender awareness. “They are willing to recognise women’s competence and achievements, and ready to cope with serious and important challenges with their female colleagues, which I think gives hopes for female lawyers in the current and future generations,” says Byun.

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